Finding ‘value’ in social networks and Communities of Practice

Finding ‘value’ in social networks and Communities of Practice

An update to a post previously published 30 Dec 2009.

Measuring scales

There has been much written about measuring the value of online communities such as Social Networks or Communities of Practice.  However, most pundits tend to think of measuring value from a purely financial perspective, i.e. the Return on Investment (ROI).

Clearly this is an important factor, but it’s not the only factor that should be considered. Surprisingly few organisations consider the value that is being created by having better informed and more knowledgeable staff, or the potential value of getting closer to customers and local communities. These latter factors are quite difficult to measure in terms of return on investment (ROI), and will normally take more than one business cycle (e.g. a financial year) before any meaningful financial measures can be made.

Unfortunately, and especially in today’s financial climate, organisations plan around 1 or 2 year business cycles, whereas online communities will not usually be time-limited, and very rarely be driven by finance and budgets. Allowing for the relatively small cost of bandwidth and technology, conversations are, for the most part, deemed to be free.

I have taken a different approach to the issue of how the value of online communities is measured, giving more emphasis to the discovery of value rather than the dispassionate assembly of a series of metrics, financial or otherwise. The main points are covered in a presentation I gave to the Public Health Information Network Conference while back, but still as relevant today. The key points are outlined below:

1. We need to distinguish between cost and value.

I use the humble nutmeg to illustrate this point. Weight for weight more valuable than gold in 17th century Europe. The spice was held to have powerful medicinal properties. It rocketed in price when physicians in Elizabethan London claimed that their nutmeg pomanders were the only certain cure for the plague. So, cost was very high, but the value? Well, despite the assertions of the medical experts of the day, it certainly didn’t cure the plague!

The point is reinforced by the following quotations:

I conceive that the great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by false estimates they have made of the value of things.
Benjamin Franklin 1706-1790.

A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. 
Oscar Wilde 1854, 1900.

2. We are more likely to find and create value from the communities we choose for ourselves than the communities we are compelled to join.

One of the most important characteristics of a Community of Practice is the fact that the members are self-selected, i.e. they are there because they want to be there and not because they have to be there. They will self-determine to join a community or network  because they share the same interests, passions and goals as the other members. A successful CoP will create value for the members, either collectively in terms of working towards a common goal or objective, or personally, e.g. through self-development or sharing knowledge.

3. We are re-discovering networks and communities and through them, re-learning how to have conversations.

It’s a sad fact that 21st century working practices and pressures of modern life have led to a sense of personal isolation. Mass production, prescriptive and repetitive tasks and limited social opportunities in the workplace have created a workforce conditioned to think and act as a corporate entity, limiting individual aspirations and creative thought. The opportunities for sharing information and knowledge have been gradually eroded over the past 50 years; social clubs have closed; people don’t have the time (or money) to regularly socialise after work; we are increasingly driven by task-oriented emails.

What is sometimes forgotten is that professional communities, where good and notable practice is shared amongst fellow artisans, are still flourishing today in the form of Worshipful Companies (over 800 in London alone), with most having existed for many hundreds of years. Communities of Practice are not new; they’ve just discovered they can exist in a virtual world. The key issue for many people though, is learning how to have on-line conversations. The following points are worth emphasising:

  • We don’t know what we don’t know
  • People don’t learn from content, they learn from other people.
  • We don’t know the value of knowledge until it is shared
  • We need to find where the conversations are happening, and join in!


Dialogue is NOT:

  • Discussion, deliberation, negotiation
  • Committee, team, task or working group
  • Majority wins, minority dominance, groupthink
  • Dialogue IS:
  • Free-flowing exchange of ideas among equals
  • All ideas are solicited and are considered
  • Best ideas rise to the top

4. ROI doesn’t just mean ‘Return on Investment’

I’ve taken the liberty of using something I once heard Euan Semple say: “Keep the ‘I’ small and the ‘R’ will look after itself”. I think this is a good mantra because anyone worth their salt in the Social Media/Social Web world knows that implementing a social media strategy doesn’t have to cost a fortune. The days of multi-million pound corporate websites is fast diminishing, and anyone with this amount of money to spend is going to be quite rightly questioned on ROI, and they better make sure they have the answers.

Here are some alternative definitions for ROI:

  • Return on Influence
  • Return on Interaction
  • Return on Impact

These are the things which should be measured for value, and add a different dimension to the traditional financial measures.

5. Recognise that value to the organisation is different from value to the individual.

There is an over-emphasis on measuring value of online communities from the organisational perspective, which usually revolves around cost savings. It is important to remember that there is also a value to the individual in being a member of an online community, and this aspect often goes unrecognised (and unmeasured). The value or benefit to a community member is quite difficult to measure (the member may not be able to articulate or recognise what knowledge they have gained from the community) and any outcomes may not be easily aligned with corporate goals (e.g. job satisfaction). It is nevertheless important to consider this dimension in any overall value measurement. Qualitative metrics can provide some answers, but it’s also useful to examine quantitative data to gain a better understanding of the community itself, e.g.:

  • Number of community members
  • Number of contributions
  • Number of contributors
  • Number of inactive users

Having a Social Network Analysis (SNA) application is even better, since this can reveal who the key ‘nodes’ are in the community chatter. It’s a useful discipline to consider what would happen to the online community if these community members decided to leave the community. Dependency on one or two ‘power’ contributors should be recognised as a risk.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learnt from my experience in developing, nurturing and facilitating Communities of Practice:-


..identify and look after your facilitators, they are quite often the difference between successful and unsuccessful communities

  • ..let users drive their own experimentation and use of tools.
  • and support areas that have a clear desire and need.
  • trust and relationships face to face where possible.
  • ..condition your managers for failure, not every CoP is going to be successful.
  • ..use online conferences and ‘Hot Seats’ to build membership growth and encourage conversations.


  • ..think you can force people to collaborate
  • ..assume everyone understands how to use Web2.0/social media tools.
  • ..assume everyone knows how to contribute.
  • ..worry about the ‘lurkers’, they’re obviously seeing some value in being there.
  • ..let command, control or hierarchy hamper or kill your community
  • ..set unrealistic targets

I hope this has been helpful to anyone involved with social networks or communities of practice, and particularly those who need to show that their online communities are delivering value. Just remember there is more to ROI than finance!

Here’s a link to another set of slides on the topic of ‘value’. I hope you find them useful.

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