Nature inspired community design

Every year or two, I try to find a new way to view my work, a fresh way to devise research questions, and a new way to inspire and challenge myself. I use this lens to build my speaking presentations and guide my editorial calendar. Despite failing biology during my school days, I remain fascinated by the simple and complex workings of nature. Several years ago, I became obsessed with the octopus and thinking through how businesses (especially community development) could learn from decentralized systems. Later, I moved on to comparing community management to a tide pool and what we can learn from these micro-ecosystems.

A discussion during a Community Roundtable event and mention of the book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, would turn my interests to urban planning and forever change how I viewed my position as a community manager and academic researcher. For the past couple of years, I have been breaking down how we can learn from physical community development and adapt these lessons and citizen behavior to online communities and creation of scaled digital ecosystems. I had yet to tie nature with urban planning until quieting my mind (as best as one can while commuting on a bus throughout Disney World) and staring outside the window at a patch of wild flowers.

My mind was primed to make the connection. The previous week, I had had the opportunity to attend Museum Camp hosted by Nina Simon and Beck Tench. The theme of the event was spacemaking and Nina Simon shared her “honeycomb” inspired community first program design. And the day before the light bulb went off in my head, I had listened to a NPR report on honeybee research. I was ready to think about bees. Staring out that bus window, I noticed a couple of bees making their rounds in a patch of wildflowers. This flower patch was most likely chosen to compliment the carefully created and pruned landscape of the resort rather than the pleasure of the buzzing bees. When designing a community, many choose aesthetic design over function or vice versa, rather than working to creatively blend the two.

I have been struggling with how to make blend the two and thinking about a digital ecosystem highly influenced by urban planning principles as a giant mind map. Instead of disparate community circles bridged or bonded by green spaces of social networks, what if the neighborhoods were visually represented by the “honeycomb” design as Nina Simon and her museum uses to define the needs and assets of the community?

Honeycomb. Hives. Bees. What had I just heard about the destruction of the honeybee communities? Was there a lesson to be learned from nature? Would I find a connection between bees and urban planning? <– This is how my mind works.

Colony collapse disorder has prompted scientific researchers to find out how the honeybee population is impacted by stress and pesticides and if any other bees are able to step in and do the work of the honeybee. It turns out squash bees (that can carry 100 times more pollen than a honeybee) and a type of Japanese orchard bee (that can do the work of almost 80 honeybees) may be a cost effective solution for farmers without the sacrifice of honeybees.

I think the key to remember is resilience,”says Shelby Fleischer, Professor of Entomology at Penn State University. “So don’t just aim for any one species. Historically, there’s been a lot of emphasis on making honeybees our pollinator, and resilience suggests that we should try and support a community of bees.

As organizations build online communities, they cannot aim for just one type of member with a single source of sustenance or risk a monoculture that will run the same course as the honeybee and colony collapse disorder. Simon uses the “honeycomb” design to surface new ideas and match community needs and assets with projects and collaborators. Design is not sacrificed for function or vice versa. Many types of people and ideas are required for a healthy community to flourish. Let’s take a cue from bee expert, Dan vanEnglesdorp – “Make meadows, not lawns.” A company cannot pollinate itself and relies on the communities served to be natural pollinators of innovation. Rather than forget our connection to nature, how can organizations be inspired by and learn from all that surrounds us and allow nature to guide the design of our interactions? A community first design trumps a digital first strategy.


Team Immersion: Snapchat

9354933893_4d68a59712_oI wish I had time to explore all the fresh tools and apps designed to inspire or help us to become more effective and efficient. There are some cases where I will be first in line to test a new product or service. Then there are times when I want to observe how a person or company is using a product or service. I downloaded Snapchat early, but I did not actively use the service. I could understand why teens were using Snapchat to communicate, but did it make sense for me or my professional life? This summer, I began to see how various communities were thriving with Snapchat and why publishers and marketers were salivating for a reason to snap. Keeping up with the Jones’ was not an excuse to determine if my company should be using Snapchat, but it did give me the motivation to brainstorm various angles of use.

What better way to explore a product or service, than becoming dependent upon it for a certain length of time. I am talking about becoming immersed in the community. Not simply observing, but actively participating. I wasn’t going in alone. I needed other viewpoints and skill sets. This was the perfect opportunity to introduce team immersions – where I invite and challenge my team to only communicate using one tool/product/service for 24 hours.

You guessed it. The first immersion on my list would be Snapchat.

I wasn’t a Snapchat super user, but I knew one of my team members actively snapped. In vain, she had tried to get her teammates to join in her obsession. No dice. This immersion day would giver her a chance to demonstrate how and why she uses Snapchat. She would be the perfect teacher for my team. I asked her to compile a super simple training session two weeks before our scheduled immersion. This gave team members enough time to download and play with Snapchat without the fear of first snap learning in front of a professional audience.

There was some grumbling. Snapchat is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some folks communicate better with words than pictures. Using Snapchat forced our team to use whole-brain thinking. Pun intended – this assignment required one to look at the world through various lenses and document the experience.

Yesterday, our team immersed ourselves into the world of Snapchat.

For some, caffeine intake was the sole focus of the day. Others used animal superstars to convey humorous captions to the workday. Snaps are fleeting, but the impression of the immersion is not. Whether we continue to use Snapchat personally or devise a way to use for our organization, our team now understands the friction points of the experience and how each of us viewed the world so differently during a 24 hour day…just as each member of our communities. If nothing else, this invitation for a team immersion was a wakeup call for empathy across all channels. It is so easy to become comfortable in our routines on mainstream social media networks. There are other ways to tell stories. Emotions are captured beyond emojis. We know Snapchat better and can think strategically about how and if/when we encourage snapping.

An added benefit? We know each other better. This is the foundation of success for any team…especially a virtual team!

Follow me on Snapchat: VargasL / VargasLMV

Our next team immersion is in September and we will be using Periscope.

Community Management Realized

Today, I will post and not make excuses for the gap in publishing. I have been working and realizing the community and social dreams several of us have blogged about over the past seven (or more) years. Social media is not dead. Community managers are wanted. There are jobs for people who can think critically, create resonating content, and engage empathetically to the communities they serve.

Today, many will celebrate the role of community manager. I have never been a fan of this event. Perhaps this is because I have avoided the limelight. My job is to let others shine, realize their potential, and share their stories. A community manager is never alone in their job. There are times when one may feel the burden of being the sole spokesperson and storyteller of the community, but a community exists through reciprocal relationships and transcends the individual.

Today, you will celebrate the progress of community management. What progress has been made? Are these positions of advanced thinking and empowerment? The State of Community Management and salary surveys as published by The Community Roundtable are ideal. I applaud this organization for continuing to hold the flag for community managers and give us the resources we need to push our companies forward. What I don’t appreciate are those with voices claiming our industry is dead or our positions should no longer exist. It is these voices that whisper into the ears of executives and seed doubt. It is these voices that talk about the same subjects over and over again. They do not talk about the dark side of social media or community management publicly. They do not take the conversations to the next level and challenge our own to think bigger and better. Yes, community management should be a part of every role in the company, but we are far from this utopia. Education is needed. We have to pave the road and build a safe haven for internal and external engagement. It really does take a village.

Today, I implore the community and social media managers celebrating another day of employment to share lessons learned. There is no secret sauce to successful community building and content development. Let’s not be afraid to share the failures and the successes. Let’s stop glossing over the tough topics. There are several paths to success. There is no one-size-fits all community management. The silver bullet is your own critical thinking and judgement.

Today, I celebrate those community managers who won’t make the lists or the celebratory meet-ups. I tip my hat to those who have their head down, lifting up the people in the communities they serve without promoting their personal brand as primary objective.

Being the Mentor – Ditch Digital Guru or Manager Titles

Last week, I needed a vacation from the vacation (to Germany to visit close friends and England to attend the MuseumNext conference). My Inbox was a disaster and the meetings mounted up because people were preparing to be out of the office this week because of the American holiday, Fourth of July. The crazy whirlwind that is my full-time job, being a parent, and a museum fanatic/lurker, prevented me from writing a post summarizing my recent MuseumNext conference take-aways. The additional time did give me some breathing room to (procrastinate) think through what I would post and why. One theme resonated throughout the MuseumNext conference: Everyone wanted to be or have a digital guru and no one seemed to want one person to be the digital commanding force. Let me explain.

The conference kicked off with a bang as Koven Smith delivered some hard truths about “becoming authentically digital.” Though the conference audience may have been museum professionals, Koven’s recommendation to accelerate taking digital out of job titles to get get more people thinking about and taking an active role in digital work and integration, applies to any industry at the moment. This was my favorite line from the keynote:

“In the same way that DDD used to mean “automatic awesome” for audiophiles, “digital” for museums means sweet motherlodes of engagement and young people. We’re finally getting digital. Let’s roll out that blog, and wait for carloads of teenagers to arrive on our doorsteps. That’s the way this works, right?”

I will not duplicate Koven’s post and try to define digital. It is all semantics and how the definition does or does not align with your organization’s culture. I have struggled for years determining if ‘social media,’ ‘community management,’ and now ‘digital’ belong in my job title. To get through the front door, you feel like you should be using those descriptors, and then, when you are past the guard, the title description becomes a straight jacket. I have said many times publicly, that my goal is to work myself out of a job. The role of community manager belongs to every member of the organization, just as ‘digital’ is (as Koven describes) “a methodology that could be adopted by anyone inside  the organization.” In a follow-up session at MuseumNext, Tijana Tasich, Digital Production Lead at Tate, echoed many of Koven’s recommendations about eliminating the need for a separate digital department, and suggested we recruit digital leaders to act as guides of how the organization can apply digital experience and authority.

Let’s go one step further and recommend the grooming or hiring of digital mentors. There is also a lot of baggage that is attached to the word, ‘mentor,’ so allow me to define mentor as one of the archetypes of Joseph Campbell’s, Hero’s Journey, described by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey as:

“In the anatomy of the human psyche, Mentors represent the Self, the god within us, the aspect of personality that is connected with all things…Mentor figures, whether encountered in dreams, fairy takes, myths, or screenplays, stand for the hero’s highest aspirations…Mentors are often former heroes who have survived life’s early trials and are now passing on the gift of knowledge and wisdom.”

In the journey to ‘becoming authentically digital,’ the hero is the collective organization. The function of the mentor is to teach or train the hero for upcoming challenges and bestows an important gift to the hero to be earned and used at the appropriate time during the journey.  Just as there are many types of heroes, there are many types of mentors, willingly or unwillingly, teaching in spite of their own tragically flawed selves. Both the hero and the mentor are called to serve and neither can ignore the call to adventure.

“Although the Hero’s Journey often finds the Mentor appearing in Act One, the placement of a mentor in a story is a practical consideration. A character may be needed at any point who knows the ropes, has the map to the unknown country, or can give the hero key information at the right time. Mentors may show up early in a story, or wait in the wings until needed at the critical moment in Act Two or Act Three.” Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

We must prepare ourselves and our organizations to be able to become and / or receive these guides. To become authentic, we have to understand ourselves, worts and all. Taking ‘digital’ out of a job title will not accelerate the needed thinking to embody a digital methodology. Museums…organizations…are in need of digital mentors who can provide motivation, inspiration, guidance, training, and gifts for the journey. Now, when you frame the job description in this way, many of the self-proclaimed digital gurus, directors, and managers become irrelevant.

Building SMART Online Communities

Community management posts have become a bit stale. There are a lot of people saying the same thing. Not that any of this content is not worthy (although some of it is questionable depending on source and experience), but it is a lot of the same direction regurgitated or repackaged in a BuzzFeed approach. Over the past two years, I have thinned out the community management and digital voices I was listening to and started to look outside our industry for inspiration. A year ago, The Community Roundtable (one of the few resources I kept on my radar because of quality of content and internal discussions) invited Thomas Vander Wal to present about the links between community management and urban planning. Instantly intrigued, I took copious notes and read the recommended book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. The original copyright of  this book is 1961, yet many of the messages in the book are timeless. I read the 50th anniversary edition and covered the book in highlighter and Post-It notes.

“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.” 
― Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American Cities

The way Jacobs explained the design and user experience of a city dweller, I understood the connection Vander Wal presented, so I began to seek out current urban planning thinking and discussions and stumbled across the smart and sustainable city discussions. If you follow me on Twitter, you have witnessed my obsession with this content. The community management discussion and linkage extends beyond social media community and into the broader digital ecosystem development. Social media networks are merely the green spaces or collective areas within the online city. More on that later…

The blog discussions led to the reading of The Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck (check out the TED video), The Happy City by Charles Montgomery, and Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia by Anthony M. Townsend. All three authors reference Jacobs and build on her original ideas to propose a user-centric environment. Many of the same urban planning principles and phrases used in the books I also found referenced in online development resources. Websites, social media networks, mobile solutions, and other digital assets are being created by organizations to serve one or several communities.

We are building online cities.

(And some organizations are creating viable pathways between nodes or neighborhoods, while other companies are facing urban sprawl challenges as they create unrelated mobile apps and microsites.)

The spark was lit. For the first time, in quite a long time, I was inspired to once again discuss community management, and present best practices with fresh perspective. Earlier this year, at SoloPr Summit, I mustered my courage to present on this topic and was encouraged by the positive reaction to the connections I was proposing. Over the next several months on this blog, I will outline the links between community management and urban planning and the five-step process I have already started to put into practice.

  1. Understanding the digital ecosystem
  2. Establishing zones
  3. Building crosswalks
  4. Developing green spaces
  5. Packaging experiences

It is time to go beyond theory, stop talking strategy, and forge a pathway that can only be discovered through action.

A Community Manager Must-Read

This blog has been on hiatus. I apologize for the sudden departure. It has been difficult sorting out my own thoughts and having time to think critically about blog post ideas (I do not lack draft posts!) in between researching and writing my thesis, two summer courses, a FT job…and oh, raising a family. Yikes! The mass transit commutes have increased and the insomnia has not decreased, so I have not been slacking in my consumption of books.

You may have noticed I have recommended Civility in the Digital Age by Andrea Weckerle on Twitter and Facebook as a must-read for community managers or anyone with frontlines communication responsibilities. Weckerle, an attorney, picks apart the anatomy of a conflict and helps readers understand and identify their own conflict management style for improved online communications. I have consistently used this book and supporting CiviliNation site as a resource for internal community manager training and have found this group receptive to the foundational skills outlined in this text.

This is why I am so excited about the indiegogo campaign for the CiviliNation Academy for Online Conflict Management. “Think ‘Khan Academy’ but with a conflict management focus.” There are only eight days remaining to help CiviliNation reach their goal to offer this much-needed training for FREE. I have never been compelled to give more than $25 to any cause. This campaign and need for such a training resource struck such a chord within that I knew I needed to give $250 of my personal income. Watch this short video, send it to your co-workers and friends, and learn more about the proposal. Please consider giving what you can to help launch the CiviliNation Academy. As community managers, we are not only stewards of online communities, but participants – conflicts avoid no one. Know how and when to engage. Lead by example.