Once members of an organisation have the means to talk to each other all the time - instead of at occasionally meeting - they can organise to change the way things are run. I always hoped that would be the democratic result of online communities - now my friend Ed Mitchell provides some real evidence of the possibilities.
Ed's been working over the past year or so with CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, to develop online communities for sharing professional practice in a fast-changing world. I gather that's worked well, thanks to the strong commitment of Lyndsey Rees-Jones of the Membership Services Unit, and other staff. Earlier this week Ed and Lyndsey told the story of how member engagement also started to impact on the governance of the organisation. You can see their slides from Online Information on slideshare and here.
Ed expands on the presentation in his blog post about the Membership engagement story.
There wasn’t a communities team when we started, nor processes to ensure that issues arising from the communities were handled professionally and promptly and fairly. This was an important element of our work:
How to ensure that when issues come up in the communities, the members can get the influence and support from HQ they need when they need it?
This is a strategic management question which we think is on many organisations’ horizons. Since talking about this project publicly, we have found that there are very few ‘community’ teams in HQs which are pragmatically integrated into the membership communities, so we wanted to share our findings to help others.
The CILIP Membership Services Unit, addressed this issue, and started work closely online with members. Here's what happened:
This presentation tells a simple story about how the CILIP members chose to use one of the private membership forums as a ‘virtual hustings’ in advance of their council elections, and how they managed to get support from HQ when they needed it.
The website has an election page and the individuals’ manifestos, but no space to converse with the hopefuls and to kick the ideas around, so the members set up a thread in the forums, which proved to be exceptionally popular. It gave everyone a transparent opportunity to discuss their ideas and hopes for CILIP in 2008 which had not been there before.
The members agreed that they wanted to promote the elections as much as possible and identified all the channels of communication available to them (from their own blogs to the formal CILIP communications). They felt that the CILIP website itself wasn’t promoting the elections enough and pointed this out among themselves. Within one day, the web editing team in HQ had put a banner together and placed it right in the middle of the homepage.
This doesn’t sound like a revolution, but it was the first time that the members influenced the management and got space on the homepage under their own steam.
Most organisations’ homepages are tightly controlled spaces with rather formal processes for booking space on them; otherwise there would be great tension between departments seeking the all hallowed homepage slot. CILIP is no different.
The thing to note is that these processes reflect the needs of HQ, so the members getting a say in what goes on the homepage is really quite exciting.
This was enabled because of having a communities team in HQ who were aware of what was going on in the communities and who were actively influential in HQ and who could therefore advocate for the members where suitable.
CILIP appear to be particularly open to sharing their experience with other organisations, and Ed reports that they have agreed to publish the lessons learnt document next year - previously only available to members.
Meanwhile discussion about member engagement continues at RSA, where Matthew Taylor is committed to putting the 27,000 members (known as Fellows) at the heart of the organisation. (Previous posts archived here).
After a very successful event for 250 Fellows a couple of weeks ago, project ideas are being developed by Fellows on a prototype RSA Networks online system. I've raised issues on the OpenRSA blog about how ideas about co-creation with Fellows, presented at the event, will be put into practice, and I'm hopeful we'll get some encouraging news shortly.
The shift from hierarchical to more networky structures in organisations is really difficult, and I've great admiration for the way both CILIP and RSA are tackling this. As I wrote last year, if membership organisations don't face up to the issues they could be by-passed as members do their own networking elsewhere.
For a US view of the issues see Six principles for designing an architecture of participation at the excellent We have Always Done it That Way blog. UK references on the challenges facing membership organisations most welcome. The NCVO Third Sector Foresight team have been doing some great work on the impact of technology on nonprofits, with a recent seminar reported here by Paul Henderson, but need another round of funding to keep this work going. Maybe CILIP or RSA could co-host an event with NCVO to share experience to date, and gain support for further investigation.