Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Success Criteria For Online Communities That Accelerate Positive Change

by Pamela Kilborn-Miller September 9th, 2010

How can we unleash the power of self-organizing groups that want to collaborate online to accelerate positive change? After managing, researching, and/or participating in online communities for almost 15 years, I’ve discovered the following success criteria for geographically dispersed groups that are trying to accomplish common goals:

1. Focus – Are the goals imposed from the top-down or developed in collaboration with the stakeholder communities? In Washington, one innovative environmental network collaborated with government, education, business, and citizens at the state, regional, and local levels to create a plan for environmental education that will touch every citizen in the state. The E3 Network subsequently created a custom online platform to help members implement the plan.

2. Audience – The most active, committed, and productive communities have members that need to share information to succeed in their jobs. For communities outside of work, passion for the subject matter increases participation but engagement tends to ebb and flow because people involved in one good cause often have multiple commitments. The good news is that many Seattle seniors are actively involved in social media so there’s an opportunity to build the multi-generational communities that are needed to address our greatest challenges.

3. Credibility – Thought leaders and experts are more likely to engage in online communities that are comprised of their peers. However, if a community is important to the success of an organization then the leadership team should participate. To make it easy for busy people to chime in, online discussions might be scheduled at specific times. If membership in an online community is open to the public, you might want to pre-approve members and home page content, or your network could be vulnerable to a spam attack or angry people who want to vent.

4. Action – What is one inspiring project or campaign your community can focus on that will produce a positive result in less than a year? For example, the Compassionate Action Network asked Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and the City Council to become the first city in the world to affirm the Charter for Compassion. Now, 35 cities around the world have expressed an interest in affirming the Charter that won the 2008 TED Prize for Karen Armstrong.

5. Cycles – Communities have patterns of activity and they sometimes go to sleep until an exciting activity wakes them up again. If an online group launched at an event, it could take another event to activate it again. If you aren’t sure which tool to use after an event or whether the community will endure, a free and easy platform for post-event discussions and news is LinkedIn Groups.

6. Momentum – While sniffing around Google Analytics recently, I was shocked to discover that one community I manage had visitors from 150 nations and territories within the past year. Sharing news such as this on the home page and other progress that isn’t visible can help create excitement and a sense that the organization is moving forward.

7. Hire Writers and Editors! – People with professional editorial experience can help reduce information overload by improving the “signal to noise” ratio and making content easier to digest and apply. Writers can also codify the collective knowledge produced by the network so there’s something tangible that can be shared with others, such as success stories.

8. Facilitation – Some UN knowledge networks have a small team that includes the facilitator, a subject matter expert, and a researcher. They facilitate discussions, acknowledge contributions by community members, identify issues, reach out to experts, and write reports. The facilitators model the behavior they need to build friendly and cohesive communities.

9. Design – People can be picky about how they collaborate together. An organization might conduct usability tests before committing to an online platform because personal profiles can be difficult or impossible to transfer. To find out if the platform is easy to use, ask your members to complete specific tasks online and share their thoughts.

10. Technology – Networks of self-organizing groups can be difficult for small nonprofits to manage with limited resources. An online platform called Ning has made it possible for just two people to manage an active local network with 1800+ members. (Feel free to tell us about other platforms in the comments section below.)

11. Face-to-Face Meetings – As we all know, the most effective form of knowledge sharing happens in person. One UN network meets annually to discuss the previous year’s work, share lessons learned, plan the next year’s work, and create workgroups, if needed.

12. Impact – How will you create positive change that will have a measurable impact? Is there a process that should be incorporated into your overall strategy? For example, one UN change process for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) includes 4 steps: awareness and outreach, training and learning, implementation, and evaluation.

What does the above list add up to? Where are local, national, and global networks headed in the future? During an August 2010 talk in Seattle, Dr. Anne Marie Slaughter, Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department offered one possible scenario. Dr. Slaughter said that network innovation is at the heart of how the U.S. can lead the world. If U.S. State Department offices in 190 nations can help bring communities of interest and action together to share best practices, resources, and challenge each other, then she suggested that we might be able to step back and “let the magic happen” as communities align to co-create their future.

Feel free to share your own success criteria in the comments section below.

Pamela Kilborn-Miller creates information sharing strategies to accelerate positive change. Pam’s background includes graduate research via the United Nations and work in various capacities for the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, Microsoft, and several foundations. She can be reached in Seattle at pamkm@comcast.net.

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