Community as a Professional Discipline

David Spinks
April 21, 2014
April 2, 2024

A discipline is defined as "a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education." Most professions can be looked at as a discipline.

Whenever I refer to community as a discipline people love the sound of it but seem confused about what it actually means.

I think this is because community is often viewed as a trait of other disciplines rather than a discipline in itself. You can be a community minded designer, marketer, product manager, support manager or CEO.

Other disciplines can be traits too. You can be a design-minded developer or a product-minded marketer. In each case, it's clear that the person practices a core discipline while also understanding or applying other fields to their work.

When community is your discipline, the core of your work is focused on understanding and putting into practice the development of communities. You might also understand and apply marketing, support or other practices but they're traits, not your core discipline.

Many people who have the title "community manager" today aren't able to practice community as a discipline even if they want to. Because the term community has become a catch all for a number of roles, they end up practicing a collection of traits. They do a little bit of marketing, a little bit of support and a whole swab of other roles but never get to truly focus on pure community. They're caught between disciplines.

As a result, the community industry as a whole finds itself caught between disciplines, rather than established as a discipline in itself. When community is looked at as jacks of all trades it degrades and dilutes the core value of what we do.

So what is community as a discipline?

It's a difficult question to answer because the definition of professional community building has evolved over the last decade.

In it's simplest form, community means building networks of people who are building relationships with each other and feel a sense of belonging within the larger group (or a sense of community).

The reason the application of that definition has evolved is largely due to the growth of community centric products. You look at organizations like Facebook, Airbnb, Lyft, Twitter, Wikipedia, Wikileaks, Quirky and Kickstarter, they all have community at their core. The value of the product increases as more people join and interact. The stronger the community, the stronger the business.

As a result, the value of community and the need for people who understand it on a deep level has increased exponentially.

Where before community building was often limited to forum management, today if you're building a product that requires human-to-human interaction, collaboration, feedback, transactions, then you can gain from the expertise of a community professional.

Like other disciplines, community has a number of different strategies and applications. For example, marketing has social media, advertising, publicity stunts, word of mouth, viral, billboards, mobile, on the ground, flyers etc. Community also has a lot of different strategies and applications.

To get more specific, someone who practices community "as a discipline" might want to understand how to:

  • Track community health (see network density)
  • Interact with people one-on-one in a way that get's people to trust you and share feedback openly
  • Apply psychology and sociology relevant to how humans interact and why we naturally form communities (Sense of Community theory)
  • Set up and grow community (conversation) platforms
  • Set up trust and reputation systems
  • Work with product teams to develop healthy human to human interaction
  • Host events of varying sizes and focuses to bring people together in person (or online)
  • Conduct user research, surveys, interviews
  • Track customer engagement and retention (and tie it back to community activity)
  • Create mechanisms for knowledge sharing and crowd-sourced content
  • Host activities to increase member engagement and activity
  • Create content to educate, entertain and empower your community members
  • Create community internally, amongst employees

This isn't a comprehensive list but should give you a good idea of what falls within community. At it's core, I like to think of the community discipline as UUX, or anything revolving around User-to-User Experience.

When we start thinking about community as a discipline instead of a trait, we can stop asking questions like "where in the company should community live?" and we can stop expecting community managers to automatically take on marketing, support, PR and every other non-technical role. We'll start to see more VP's of community and soon enough, Chief Community Officers. We'll see more college courses teaching community. We'll see more conferences and tools built for community professionals.  We'll see more young professionals aspire to build a career in community. We'll see a community industry that's a respected field in the business community.

It has to start from the inside. It's inspiring to see people pioneering what it means to practice community as a discipline (Ligaya Tichy, David Noel, Cindy Au, Sarah Judd Welch, Richard Millington, to name a few) and dedicated resources (like TheCR) built just for community professionals. Companies like Yelp, Airbnb, Kickstarter and Soundcloud have all built community teams with members in the double digits.  Still, many community professionals still don't recognize their work as a discipline.

Let's start by changing that mindset within our own community and see what happens.--Photo Credit: nic519

David Spinks
Founder of CMX, VP of Community at Bevy
April 21, 2014
April 2, 2024

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