I'm a moderator of a small but growing online community of learning professionals. (Some from the group will, no doubt, read this post. Welcome! Let me know what you think, from a professional perspective, about what I say below. Feel free to post a comment below or in our group forum.) The online ASTD-OC is a new group that's still finding its legs.
Someone shared with me their own frustrations about starting new discussion groups. We talked about motivating members to contribute and share their experiences with others in the forum. How collectively, there are a lot of experiences to be gained and shared, if only folks would be willing to share them. We talked along those lines for a while over lunch. We shared our experiences and facilitative techniques.
We didn't disagree with each other, especially on this key point: this is normal for all small groups.
The One Percent Rule and Beyond.
Early this month I was asked if I would consider becoming a moderator for our local ASTD chapter's new online group forum. Given all the startup challenges of moderating a group, I had to give it some lengthy thought--all of about 10 seconds' worth!
Absitively I'd want to moderate the group. Twist my arm. Are you kidding? Not only is it a great opportunity to extend my professional network, gain visibility and meet new friends, it's also a great opportunity to grow a community with a strong collective mindshare in the learning industry while helping connect folks to each other along the way. I'm happy to say that since the beginning of this month, the group has passed the century mark and grew another 30%. But that's still a ways off from the critical mass we need to have what I'd consider thriving, regular discourse. And that's okay.
As with any group, the "one percent rule" applies. That is, out of 100 people in a community, you can expect that, generally, one (maybe two) will create content, 10 will interact with that content in some way (e.g., through commenting, bookmarking, sharing, etc.) and the rest will observe.
From an organizational change management perspective, I think that's right on. And what's more, if I see a dynamic that's different than that--even if it was due to more interactivity--then, as a change agent, I need to be aware of doing more digging to find out why. The answer may be something that needs to be managed further.
Even if the interactions were greater than expected, it could be they're the result of interactions that may be unfavorable to the overall group. For example, as in the case of an undesired amount of self-promotion, marketing or spam by some of its members. (It's okay, guys. That's not happening in our group, yet.)
Remember The Change Curve.
I think it's important to keep in mind,too, that as a group moderators, we operate in a role of change agent. As such, we'd be keen to keep in mind the change curves that are play.
In a previous post I wrote about how pessimism, no matter how slight, will manifest at some point following the initial optimism of some change that's initially perceived as positive. (See "Informed Pessimism Always Follows Uninformed Optimism.")
I wrote about how members of the organization, or group, can "check out" when pessimism sets in and change agents don't effectively manage communications with the group. There's no reason to believe that the same dynamic isn't at play in group forums.
Initially, members will join with the optimistic view of connecting and interacting with others in their professional community.
The reality is, after some time, it's normal that they become less optimistic. The topics being posted might not be aligned with their interests, or they find that it takes too much effort to post a new topic or to read and respond to other topics. Or, it may be they tried posting a topic or a comment and got flamed.
If you experience that in any of the groups you're a member of, or groups you moderate, I'd say take heart. It's a normal.
So what do you do?
If you're a group member:
- Stay the course. I think you're doing the right thing. Look, conventional wisdom about joining any group is correct: listen, observe, get a feel for group norms before posting new topics or comments. When you're ready, you'll join in. And, the fact is, for some people, they get a lot out of simply observing and that's as far as they want it to go. (Though, a couple of things I'd mention here is that, unless you eventually allow for two-way interaction, you don't generally benefit from the visibility you would otherwise enjoy from your networking "efforts." Secondly, you tend to limit the ability of others to benefit from your knowledge and experiences.)
- Observe and listen to who the key personalities are.
- If you have questions about protocol or topics, send an email to one of the group members or the group moderator "behind the lines," so to speak. Introduce yourself and ask your question in private. (Another key point here. Don't say anything, even in a private email, that you would otherwise not want to have get around in public. You know, just in case...)
- At the same time, don't let "analysis paralysis" prevent you from making contributions. Even if it's for fear of "gawd, what if nobody posts a comment to my topic?" Again, that's normal. It's a fact, not everyone receives a reply to their posts, no matter how well connected that person is.
If you're a group member stepping into the role of moderator for the first time:
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Post a new, relevant topic once every day or so. Include open-ended questions that invite your membership to comment. They won't do it right away. The important thing is to keep a steady stream of content that both gives the community something to chew on while providing educational value even if no comments are ever posted about it.
- Keep the change curve in mind. It generally goes this way: Member Optimism-> Member Pessimism-> Member waiting to see what other communications happen. Typically, we're all waiting for "the right topic" to jump in on. Unless there's a varied mix of topics that keep refreshing their way into the forum (posted by you initially), they may never see that "right one."
- Recruit more members. Remember the 1% rule applies. The more critical mass you have in group membership, the bigger that 1% becomes in absolute value. Some thoughts: promote your forum on your blog, your website or, in the case of professional groups, promote it on the organization's main web site or blog. Open up the forum to make it easy for your membership to invite others. Consider running a contest that rewards members who recruit the most friends.
- Recruit moderators. Not a decision to be made lightly. But, not one to shy away from, either. If there's a member who seems to be contributing more than most, and is doing so with quality topics and respectful dialog, consider bringing that person into the fold.
- Finally (but not to round out a definitive list by any means), find opportunities to give visibility to the members of the community. If someone wades in and posts a particularly poignant comment, give it a feature spot in a new topic or blog post that speaks favorably of the points raised.
I'm a moderator of a small but growing online community of learning professionals. The group is still trying to find its legs. And that's okay.