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Comunidades, English, Gestión del conocimiento, Gestión e innovación, Proyectos, Vida

Emergent leadership: routes to formal authority

(Sorry about the interlude :-), I’ve been busy learning about the limitations of will over wailing matter and the consequences of massive milk absorption by small lifeforms. And diaper changing. Among other wonderful things).

In previous posts, we tried to explore some aspects of emergent leadership in the context of communities of practice (albeit in Spanish). One of the key issues was the need of a legitimising mechanism to integrate the existing power and authority structures and the emergent leaders (in the absence of which, emerging authority and established power are bound to clash; subject explored in the Revisiting CoPs series of papers).

These few weeks we’re dealing with a practical example of this, again. The Macuarium system of communities of practice comprises over 80.000 users and had a 40-strong moderation team. The strain of numbers was showing badly (don’t get me wrong: the job was getting done, it was the strain that was too heavy), so I’ve decided to overhaul it, pruning inactive moderators in no uncertain manner, and also accomodating changes in roles for those who request less workload. This will finally require over 30% personnel rotation, in an organization that relies solely on volunteers.

This opens the melon of «emergence» and integration. We need to identify potential leaders ready to take the mantle, so we can give them the tools and the methods to become moderators. The process is well advanced, and some lessons are already evident.

First, there’s evidently a limitation to «emergence» in this environenment. We (the admins and the senior moderators) have long had a very active role in the picking of candidates, taking on the task of identifying likely candidates and following their behaviour, plus doing extensive reviews of their activity in the community and even some background probing. In other words, we have to detect the qualities and the activity needed to moderate. It is a «pull» system.

This means we limit ourselves to the extent of our knowledge of the field. The weaker the existing moderator system, the weaker its ability to detect and asess potential new leaders.

We correct this with a couple of mechanisms to «crowdsource» nominations: annually, we run a series of prizes that include «User that’s helped other users most during the year»; the winners are extremely likely to become good moderators in the short term. And in some cases, we directly ask the members of a specific forum for nominations; we have seen this method to be very prone to skewing and generally not half as effective in selecting effective moderators, though.

Second, this limitation to emergence is a bad thing. We find that the pool of wonderful candidates does not grow in proportion to the user base (something we already knew, see the Revisiting CoPs series :-)), but we also find that many people that could be great leaders are not becoming as involved in the forums as we would like (in other words, we know them so we know they should be «emerging», but they aren’t). We find that, even though there is a large substrate of support and identification with the community, involvement is lower than it used to be… and we believe that is in part because there is a detectable divide between community and moderator team.

One of the reasons for that is that it had become ossified (many moderators were in their place for years and had long become inactive or disconnected from their communities), which is being solved by the shakedown. Another is that some of the current leaders lack the authority and stamina to lead (bad choices, due to bad luck or bad information).

If you add sensory limitations (a core of moderators can’t possibly identify all likely candidates, especially because not all moderators frequent all the system’s communities: blindness is accumulative) to a diminishing involvement by community members, you get a downward slope through which it will become increasingly hard to recruit a moderation team.

In practice

We’re well advanced in solving that. First, by pruning ruthlessly we sent a very clear signal that involved users have taken as a cue (activity has increased measurably). Second, the steady new wave of incorporations is bringing fresh authority from the forums and also an expanded field of vision (helping both to raise involvement and to highlight new nooks and corners). Third, new and old moderators are being deployed to cover the whole system so as to improve visibility. And fourth, this is the time of the year to run the aforementioned prizes to best users.

But it has taken time, lots of efforts and several cases of burnout to be able to get here. Indeed, I anticipate three more burnouts among key collaborators in the short term as soon as they feel there is a good enough replacement team. And… truth to say, I’ll be happy to let them go. They’re great, they’ve done impressive things, but if I’ve learned something these weeks is that you have better let go of tired people as soon as you can. Or redeploy them usefully if you can, of course. But burnout is something users smell, and it does not motivate.


Of course, this «selected emergence» process is not the only solution. We adopt it because Macuarium.com has owners and also a very clear set of goals and strategies that must be followed; others may find better mileage in other, more flexible solutions.

We’re about to start experimenting with a new role: a sort of «citizen moderator», with limited moderation powers and scope, and with a far more flexible designation (and firing) process. The role would be close to a sheriff’s deputy: providing cover fire and extended moderation time, dealing with routine cases (80%). No policy decisions, no hard calls, no access to the moderator coordination forum. Just a good rulebook and a direct line to a «jedai moderator» to learn from.

I plan to allow moderators to draft these deputies almost without admin review, and I plan to ask forum dwellers for candidates (no elections, though, but getting closer).

I’m not stressing this to the current team but such a role can bring wider changes in the long term. If the fresher, brasher, less formal deputies prove effective, they can either bolster or erode the moderator’s own authority and thus the community’s power structure. They can also prove fragmentary, something we’ve long fought to correct. Time will tell :-).

Needless to say, the game is more complex. Any deputy that does really good work will get a moderation job offer.


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