NSM Focus | New course at Radboud Management academy: Organisation in communities

To generate customer loyalty or share knowledge, to lift citizen participation off the ground, to make a difference together: companies, civil society organisations, government agencies, consumers, clients, and citizens all have their own reasons to unite as a community. But what does such a community include exactly? How do you benefit from it?

"A community is a group of like-minded people who voluntarily unite around a common interest," says Peter Staal. "They do this to acquire information, to help other interested people with their knowledge and experience, because they enjoy it, and sometimes also because it gives them a particular status." "Participation in a community also brings with it a sense of belonging," adds Patrick Vermeulen. "The feeling of belonging to a group fulfils a primal need."

Hunters and gatherers

Well-known examples of communities are de Consumentenbond (consumers' association) and de Correspondent, but a community is not by definition an online one. "The organisation of healthcare for a vulnerable elderly person in the district can also be considered a community," says Vermeulen. "All those involved – the family doctor, home care worker, informal caregiver, spiritual counsellor, family, and neighbours – have a shared purpose: good care for the older person. They complement each other, share their expertise, exchange information, and help each other. The contemporary phenomenon of community is experiencing rapid progress, but the essence of it takes us back to the time when we lived as hunters and gatherers in groups."

Spider in the web

Vermeulen is professor of Strategic Management and International Management and scientific director of the Radboud Management Academy (RMa). Peter Staal is co-owner of the consultancy firm Bind. Bind specialises in community building, but Steel was missing a validated scientific knowledge offering and approached Vermeulen with the proposal to fill that vacancy. In September, the first edition of their course Organiseren in communities (organisation in communities) will start at the RMa, with attention to theory and practice from a social-organisational perspective, the trademark of the RMa.

The course is intended for managers and supervisors at public and private organisations that actively want to work with a community. Vermeulen: "I am thinking of those people who are the proverbial spider in the web. Managers in communication, marketing, and HR for example, but also team leaders and policy staff members for the municipalities." Most organisations are accustomed to acting from a business perspective or from a professional standpoint, but a community has specific rules, standards, and values as well as its own infrastructure. That means that organisations have to familiarise themselves with different behaviour, a different process, and other expectations with regard to a community. The course deals with this comprehensively.

Voice of the citizen

Vermeulen explains that a number of today’s developments do not fit with the way organisations have traditionally been organised. "Take civic participation. Municipalities find it important to give their citizens a voice, but through the actual hierarchical structure, they are unable to involve them in policy-making. However, a civic platform does lend itself to that. Online and offline, the municipality can invite citizens to share their experiences and thoughts, after which this input can be taken into account in policy- and decision-making. This requires policy makers to leave their desks and go out into the streets to capture the voice of the citizen. Not every employee will be charmed by this new way of working. But like any organisational change, this also requires attention and time."

Fascination of the customer

A private community has much to offer companies and organisations, provided they get it right. Staal: "Let's say you're selling vacuum cleaners – not a product that people discuss with each other at parties. As a result, there would be little point in basing a community on that as a manufacturer; users are not waiting for that – although quite a few companies make this error. What you should look for is the shared fascination and motivation of your customers. For the vacuum cleaner manufacturer that could be the importance of a clean house. That's what you gear your community towards."

Then what? "Most organisations know very well who their loyal and active employees, customers, clients, or citizens are," says Staal. "They can ask some of them to act as ambassadors for the community; to welcome new members; to write blogs, to share videos, maintain wiki pages, to manage a forum, you name it. The appointment of a community manager is also of the utmost importance to keep the interaction on the right track, to ensure that members do not drop out, and to avoid the well running dry."

No room for hierarchy

90% of the members of a community contribute nothing to it, 9% is barely active, and only 1% is very active, according to Staal’s calculations. "It is therefore quite a task to reach critical mass. Once you have managed it, it would of course be a shame to lose those members again through lack of attention. An example of this is not responding if they express reasonable complaints. I see it happen regularly, but such an attitude is immediately punished by community members." Vermeulen: "Hierarchy and command and control, which many organisations are used to, don't work in a community. The input of all participants is equal. That is also something you must be aware of if you are going to build a community. You can't rush it. There is a good reason why we allocate five days for the course."/JvdB

Want to know more about the course? Please visit this website (in Dutch).