Balancing community with business

Last week we touched on some initial topics concerning community management, especially how it may be organized internally. But what about the other side of the coin? Ideally, a community has broad support, but garnering it involves looking beyond the sole interest of the business. Or does it? With that in mind, I asked our panel of professionals how community can help, but also sometimes be in opposition to the company that fosters it.

More Pizza, here at a Nuxeo Development Sprint, an event where community members are invited to contribute.

My initial question came down to first principles. Is employee-driven community management even necessary? It would seem to make sense to let community management be driven by community members, and not employees of the company. Hence my question to our experts - Could the Community Management role be outsourced to the community?

Nicolas was the first to answer:
“I think it can, if the community has a clear legal status, and is backed by an organization of a kind. It can be an association, then privileged entry-point for commercial players. Foundation-based, or single-vendor communities will necessarily own a part of the Community building strategy, respectively creating a consortium of Community Managers employed by the involved vendors, or a vendor-based Community Management team. Community Management authority often comes from the financial stakeholders.

Whether it’s a business or a non-profit, a community needs some type of professional organization to drive it."

I tend to agree, mostly because of the answers from our previous post: Community Management is a full-time job requiring guidance and resources. Individuals, with occasional impassioned exceptions, cannot bring the same degree of resources to bare as a professional organization.

Nicolas added “On the other hand, the daily operations can easily be crowd-sourced to the community. This practice serves a better structuration in the community, and is a strong motivational factor (status dynamics leveraged).” which is totally in line with James’ answer “I think it is very important to ensure that the ‘community is led by the community’, not by a single company or single individual. In the Liferay Community, we have collectively formed a Community Leadership Team, with around 15 members, which serve as our leadership function. So in some sense this is outsourcing. But it is still important to have dedicated individuals on that team whose primary mission is to keep the community healthy and active."

In the end, it appears as if a strong governance for the budding community is an important factor.. Meanwhile, outsourcing some of the tasks seems to be a goal in and of itself at a more operational level.

Laurent chimed in on that question: “That should probably be the goal of any community manager. Once you can outsource some work, it means your community has grown and is made of dedicated members. I would say this is a very good sign :) “

This represents a vision of the company as being in an encouragement role, and in the words of Tjeerd “A good community is self-serving, but it helps to boost the community by participating heavily. Almost all successful big open source software projects have a driving force behind it.”

All this is very nice, but still a bit abstract. What about when, for whatever reason, the interests of the community clash with those of the company? Here we come to my second question: What do you do when community interests are opposed to the company interests? And how can community drive the software?

Laurent tells us about this at Nuxeo. Nuxeo is a very technical company, where being open source is very much about the development process, and how to drive it from an operational standpoint. “Nuxeo's community have different options for exercising their influence: Pull requests on GitHub, Jira tickets, the jira roadmap project, mailing list, twitter etc. We listen and try to take into account as much as possible the feedback we receive. Just keep in mind that nothing's written in stone, the roadmap can change, especially when you have customers :) This is the time when a conflict of interest between the vendor and the community is, I guess, the most likely to happen. Our roadmap can change when a customer requests a very innovative feature, also if there is a strong call from the community for a feature, especially if this call comes with a contribution. We know there is always a lot of work to be done, but it is a good way to share the work.”

James’ answer is clearly to rely on the governance mentioned above. Having a “management” team comprising pure community representation as well as company representatives seems a wise way to tackle any conflicts!
“At Liferay, my job is to make it easy to get started with Liferay, help connect individuals with others who need their help, encourage contributions back to the community, and evangelize Liferay technology. Of course, it helps that Liferay was founded by open source enthusiasts and the company continues to openly state its open source mission. As a 'bridge' between the community and company, when conflict arises, we will work it out over a thread in our forum, or via a Community Leadership Team meeting (with company representatives present).”

Tjeerd also raises the fact that conflicts are not necessarily bad so long as they can guide or inform development. “We encourage a difference in opinion in order to create a better product. Even so, we believe the community needs guidance, because that leads to consistency in the product. This is where community management is key.”

Beyond the purely operational questions, Nicolas, who is passionate about all the topics we’ve discussed, makes a series of interesting points:

“Matthew Aslett proposed a superb essay on the question, discussing Control & Community. The vendor needs to constantly balance the social economy standards with its own interests. I strongly believe that the best results in this balancing-act are achieved when a transparent exposition of respective interests is done, regularly. Eschewing this lack of transparency may lead to irreversible consequences (community diaspora, product “theft”). Trust is a non-negotiable requirement, thus are Openness & Transparency.

An element of control for the vendor(s) is Intellectual Property of the code. An extreme is using a viral Open-source license (GPL-like) and requiring copyright transfer on contributed code. Full control is achieved, and prosecutions feasible. The other extreme is a loose license (MIT-style), and diffused copyright ownership, this mostly is the case in foundations, the objective of which is to jointly develop commodity software that has no real value-added in a stand-alone usage.

From a process perspective, when harvesting the feedback and claims from the community, the legitimacy of the spokesmen must be assessed, to verify that their opinion is representative and not individual, and that they have a significant track-record within the community. In other words : meritocracy, not democracy. Such assessments can be supported, in a fair way, by reputation engines/metrics, per individual.

From a very down-to-earth standpoint, the dangerousness of fork initiatives can also be assessed after from the funding they have available, and the time dedicated to running the development of the forked product, on a long-term.”

This goes beyond the topic of community management topic, clearly impacting the company’s business model, and also may be why a community would need a company backing it up! This inspired the next question, so stay tuned!

And as always, comment, ask, share your view, say how YOU do it below in the comments...