Yes, you can teach community management

The topic of training for community management has been coming up quite a bit lately, and after a #cmgrchat back in November, it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about.

As you likely already know, The Community Roundtable, WOMMA and ComBlu will begin offering training and certificates for three levels of community management later this month. (Full disclosure—I recently joined The Community Roundtable, and while I haven’t been involved in this project, it probably goes without saying that I wouldn’t be a member if I didn’t think they were providing a valuable resource to the field of community management.)

It seems as though reactions to the new training program have been fairly mixed, at least within our own little bubble. Jeremiah Owyang and Connie Benson (who’s an instructor in the program) have some good posts about why this program matters, and what it is or isn’t setting out to accomplish. Without belaboring the point, there are a few things I want to add to the conversation here:

First, don’t worry about the certificate

All due respect to everyone involved, but I think the certificate part of all this may end up being a bit of a red herring—what really matters is the training itself. Plus, I think certification implies a level of technical competence in a field that may not be as relevant for community management as it might be in other areas, especially on the web.

I also think fears that a certificate or some kind of formal certification will have a significant impact on the way community management positions get filled are probably unfounded - as anyone who’s hired a community manager can tell you, experience counts for a lot.

No really, you can teach empathy

I won’t pretend my English degree qualifies me to dive into the nature vs. nurture debate, but I really was surprised by the “you can’t teach empathy or compassion” reaction to the idea of preparing people for a career in community management.

I’m not trying to be glib, but I honestly can't think of that many people I would describe as completely devoid of empathy. Perhaps I’m grossly underestimating the number of sociopaths interested in a career in community management, but I think by and large, the first step to being a successful community manager is, you know, actually wanting to be a successful community manager. (Okay, maybe that was a little glib.) It’s by no means the only necessary skill or qualification, but it does strike me as a pretty important one.

In all seriousness, I think empathy is often a function of context, both in terms of setting and subject matter. Health is something I’m pretty passionate about, and I've spend a lot of time immersing myself in the world of patients and practitioners, attempting to understand the challenges they face here in the US, and around the world. That’s not something I knew anything about when I started working in this field as perfectly healthy 23 year old, but the more I learned about the challenges and obstacles people encountered in accessing and providing care, the easier it became to empathize with situations outside of my own personal experience.

So, yes, there is some basic kernel of empathy that you need to have in order to be able to say to yourself, “Wow, that must be hard,” but I’d like to believe that most of us do possess that, and if someone wants to activate it, and spends the time and energy identifying opportunities to exercise that skill, I really do think there’s a strong likelihood that they’ll succeed.

Why not help them learn how to identify those opportunities?

Speaking of which, let’s stop reinventing the wheel

When I first heard about this program, I thought, “I really wish this had been around four years ago.” Many (if not most) of us who have been doing this work for a little while are largely self-taught community managers. We learned from our experiences and our failures, and from whatever we could find out there on the web from other community managers. If you were lucky (and I was very, very lucky) you may have had an opportunity to learn from managers, coworkers and employees who all had some experience in the field as well.

Here’s the thing about experiential learning, though—it’s invaluable and hard won, but it is hard won. And honestly? Not everything needs to be hard. Let’s help make it easier for people trying to figure out things like what metrics they’ll want to track, or the basics of social listening tools, or how to put together an editorial calendar that’s appropriate for their organization.

When you have to figure out—and advocate for—all these things on your own, it takes a lot longer to get them done. That’s time not being spent on your someday list of to-dos and features.

Selfishly, I want to see more of what’s on that list for other community managers. In my mind, that’s the biggest potential for a program like the one The CR, WOMMA and ComBlu have put together: it can help all of us move forward as an industry. We all learn and benefit from innovative community solutions and creative implementation ideas—so let's get more of them.

What’s next?

Clearly I’m a fan of the idea of “community management training” generally, but it’s worth pointing out that the syllabus for the WOMMA Community Specialist level is pretty impressive—it looks like three weeks of solid fundamentals from people who really know what they're talking about.

It’ll certainly be interesting to see what's covered in the Community Manager and Community Strategist levels and where things go from there, but on the whole I think training is something we should all be talking and thinking more about. As our communities and organizations grow, our community teams will need to grow with them, and how we build our own teams and mentor those new to the field matters: the success of our industry depends on us doing it well.