With encouragement from Moya Watson in response to this blog:
I had written a response to the above blog when it got blown up while posting by the powers that be. So I decided to try again. Of course, my second attempt kind of took a different turn so I decided to make it into its own blog.
But thanks to Lars for inspiring it and Moya for the encouragement.
If you haven’t read Lars’s blog already, you can use the link above to read it first.
Lars is on point. Exactly what is the role of community? What is SAP getting out of this? What is the community for?
There is a monetary reason for SAP to have the community or they wouldn’t have it. Trust me on that. They see it as providing a tangible or intangible benefit. I believe they truly see a strong community as being a net positive for them. Members write Wiki’s. Members write blogs. Members present technical papers and posters. Members mentor. Members are unpaid advocates for their software, (the best kind). Members help newbies. Members teach. Members work with, and in SAP user groups (ASUG). Members are drivers of ideas. Members provide content and support to TechED. Etc. Etc.
But what engages these people? What attracts and keep members? Primarily it is interaction with other people. It is not mobile accessibility. It is not a cutting-edge technology. It is not a slick interface. Failure to have people engage with each other will result in a slow death to any community.
Almost without exception, any reason anyone gives, as to why they engage on the community, ultimately requires another person or persons.
If no one asks questions, there are none to answer. With no answers, there is no way to demonstrate ones’ knowledge. With no answers, there is no history to come search among for answers. With no audience, there is no reason to write a blog. With no peers, there is no debate or discussion. With no discussion and debate there are no intellectual challenges. With no one to earn respect from there is no reason to attempt to earn respect. When there is no one to accept your offerings, there is no reason to be a selfless, humble, provider of support and instruction.
A community is a closed loop feedback system. Something happens, feedback is given, feedback is received and a reaction happens. This must happen in a great enough manner to keep everything in balance and everyone happy. If you lose either side of the equation, you move to a different level of equilibrium. Fewer newbies & fewer interesting questions, leads to fewer answers, fewer experts, and lower attention to the site. Historical data, (blogs, discussions, questions, answers), becomes devalued as it becomes out of date and no longer relevant to current software revs. The value as an online resource continues to drop off.
There is little difference between an online community and a real-life community. People move into and leave geographical neighborhoods for the same reasons. The perceived value of the area, i.e. what has to be put in, (often $$$), for value received. The prestige associated with the area. The support and inputs received, i.e. schools, public safety, quality of neighbors, etc.
All of this in turns drives what people put back into their community. Participating actively in schools, volunteering for charities, maintaining their properties, fighting crime and working with police, participating in governmental elections and policy development, advocating for their neighborhood. Ruin either side of the equation and a neighborhood starts into a death spiral.
People have left the SAP community in droves. Experts and mentors have been discouraged and moved away. Or at least took long holidays at their vacation homes. New experts are not replacing them which leaves the remaining load to fewer people. New people are not connecting into the community and finding the remaining experts. With fewer new people and fewer questions and less intellectual stimulation, the daily, even hourly participation by remaining experts drops off even more.
If SAP, (in our example, they’re like the government to our neighborhoods), wants to revive the neighborhood, they have to change the perceived value of participation. They have to make it “the” neighborhood to be in. Unfortunately, there is no single answer to that just as there is no single answer for government. Governments need to answer basic questions for a given neighborhood before it can be revitalized. What is it going to be? What are we expecting out of it? Is it a retail area? A mixed use area? A manufacturing area? A recreational area? A riverfront? An entertainment area? A pure residential area? Then what is important to the type of people they want there? What needs to be done to attract people and/or investment into the area.
We had a city in SCN made up of neighborhoods, (spaces) that people gravitated to. They knew of the other neighborhoods and were able to visit them when they wanted to or needed to. They knew who were the goto people in those neighborhoods. It seems that with little thought, our neighborhoods were shaken up, homogenized to a single city wide landscape and people dropped in various areas.
Experts were scattered across the city, and they couldn’t even hang their plaques and shingles out to advertise their services and abilities. They had to seek out and monitor certain stores and newspapers and hope they could find someone needing their services. They no longer had an audience for their blogs and columns. So they stopped writing.
Fellow experts in related areas were scattered as well. Information or questions from expert to expert were practically impossible. The network of experts were forced to sneak into a clandestine coffee house to visit with old friends. Common topics important to all of them had no way to be shared and exchanged. Notices that someone put something up were quickly lost in the citywide broadcasts where if you didn’t happen to hear about it right away, it was quickly lost in the noise of the city. Updates on career changes, family milestones, travel plans and networking opportunities were lost. Knowing your neighbor became almost impossible. Forget about even learning the new people’s names. Trying to do anything the experts did before took them twice as long.
Newcomers were forced to put out help wanted postings (tags) and hope they had the right combination of postings so that an expert might find them. But with thousands of postings(tags) to choose from, it could be a tedious process to figure out the proper ones. They hung out in streets with new names, or even no names, waiting for someone to show. When they did make a connection, they didn’t’ have a reliable way of meeting up with the same expert again. It was only possible to monitor a few things at a time. And they always had to be there, as nobody actually called them or sent them an email that they had a response or something needed their attention. Sometimes another new person would show up and try to help them out. But that advice might be bad or incorrect. The info was permanently graffitied on the wall or on the street and never got seen by an expert. It was never corrected or updated by the original poster. Now the historical data has incorrect information in it forever with no correction or indication to future newcomers that it wasn’t right.
Slowly, the experts that had fought to keep the city alive took longer and longer holidays from the city. They returned less frequently. They let their streets and storefronts fall into disrepair. The value of the information at these locations dropped. Newcomers would take a quick look around and without being able to find an expert, or something relevant to them moved on to a different city.
What’s sad is that the people are always out there. Populations never decrease overall. They just move to areas where they perceive the most value. The experts don’t’ go away. They find other outlets, other cities, other places to meet with their peers. Newcomers will seek them out and find them somehow. But neighborhoods do die. Neighbors move away.
The good news is that cities and neighborhoods can be revitalized. But they take serious attention and investment. The laws of entropy must be obeyed. Investments must be made to maintain order and prime the pump. But the revitalized neighborhood will be mostly new people, with new ways. Some old neighbors might be remembered for a while. Some might even adapt and thrive. But eventually most will be forgotten.
So, what vision does SAP have for the community? Until that is defined, and the balance is restored again and the exodus ended, no revitalization is possible.
I hope I can survive and adapt. But I’m feeling old right now. 🙁