Engagement is the new holy grail. The term doesn’t suffer from a lack of attention recently with the rise of tools like Nuconomy, Microsoft’s attempts to discuss engagement mapping and others trying to define the term in order to make it measurable. And why? Now the page view is officially dead, people are looking for different way to measure the success of social sites. And customer engagement seems to be the ultimate goal community builders try to achieve, because when people are truly engaged to your community, they will be loyal customers won’t they? Therefore we want to measure how engaged our customers really are. However, from a more academic perspective, one could argue whether measuring engagement will be sufficient. In this short series, I will try to explore additional routes for measuring the success of social sites.
personal side note: I just recently started thinking on the topic of measurement, so my thoughts on this aren’t crystal clear. I”m looking for ways to make it more tangible so to speak. If you have contributions to the topic, please add them in the comments.
Communities of Practice
It’s my believe that online communities are closely related to a scientific concept known as communities of practice. One of the founding fathers of this concept, Etienne Wenger, describes communities of practice as groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn who to do it better as they interact regularly. Communities of practice form an important basis of Wenger’s so called social theory of learning but it goes too far to discuss this in detail here.
This loose definition of communities of practice can be applied to many existing communities. For instance, when you consider that participants in services like Flickr, Slideshare or Delicious who group together through formal (like in we use the same tag to share information about a topic of mutual interest) or informal relations (like in we follow each other and read each others contributions) indeed share a concern or a passion for a certain topic. By interacting with each other through time, participants use social tools to increase their understanding about the topics they are involved in.
Design for communities
Wenger describes communities of practice as social groups where people participate and learn. These groups are informal, so in essence, they cannot be designed but can only be designed for. This is a subtle difference. A framework to design for communities of practice consists of three main pillars: Design facilities for engagement, imagination, and alignment. Wenger’s description of engagement is similar to, but more extensive then, the description commonly found in other writings.
Engagement: Engagement is defined as active involvement in mutual processes of negotiation of meaning. It requires access to both participative and reificative aspects of the practice of a community. It should enable a participant to contribute to the pursuit of an enterprise, to the negotiation of meaning, and to the development of a shared repertoire. It also requires access to the full reificative arsenal of symbols, tools, language, documents, and so on. In terms of design, engagement consists of three components, namely mutuality, competence, and continuity.
Imagination: From an abstract perspective, imagination is about creating images of the world and seeing connections by extrapolating from one’s own experience, in order to orient ourselves, to reflect on our situation, and to explore possibilities. It requires the ability to explore, to take risks, to reflect, and to create unlikely connections. Imagination requires an open mind and the willingness to expose yourself. It also requires material to use in the process of imagination. In terms of design, imagination consists of three components, namely orientation, reflection, and exploration.
Alignment: Alignment deals with coordinating energy and activities in order to fit within broader structures and to contribute to broader enterprises. Through alignment, members of a community become part of something bigger, because they do what it takes to play their part and to become effective beyond their own engagement. In terms of design, alignment should include facilities for convergence, coordination, and jurisdiction.
Engagement, imagination and alignment as concepts for measuring success
As design for implies that facilities of engagement, imagination and alignment should be in place in order for a community of practice to flourish. Therefore it’s a short run to state that these concepts also apply to the success of social sites where communities of practice are active. Therefore, the first premise I make here is that in order to measure the succes of social sites, you should not only look at the concept of engagement, but you should take the concepts of imagination and alignment into account as well. Although not directly clear, directions for measurements can be derived from the more formal definitions.
This is the first post in a short series on measurements concept for successful social sites. The second post will take the concept of communities of practice and measurement of social sites one step further by looking at the concept of sociality. This series could not have been written without the help of the Maatschap.