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The Power of Small, Purposeful Communities with Bill Johnston

Posted Oct 20, 2022 | Views 579
# Community Roundtable
# Engagement
# Science of Community
# Events
# Culture
Bill Johnston
Bill Johnston
Bill Johnston
Founder, Community Architect @ Structure3C

Bill is a pioneering online community-builder and strategist. His passion is designing online community ecosystems for purpose-driven organizations. Bill founded Structure3C to help organizations move beyond the boundaries of platforms and optimization-focused “best practices” to create transformational community experiences. Prior to founding Structure3C, Bill held Director positions at Autodesk and Dell, where he was responsible for online community and social media globally.

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Bill is a pioneering online community-builder and strategist. His passion is designing online community ecosystems for purpose-driven organizations. Bill founded Structure3C to help organizations move beyond the boundaries of platforms and optimization-focused “best practices” to create transformational community experiences. Prior to founding Structure3C, Bill held Director positions at Autodesk and Dell, where he was responsible for online community and social media globally.

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Bill will present primary research on the role of purpose in community strategy, give a summary of recent research on how brands are investing in high-touch online community experiences for their executive customers, and offer guidance on how to think about creating more purposeful and intimate communities for your organization. 

When most brands think "community", they think of online forums that are focused on support and knowledge management - this is an unfortunate limiting belief.

The pandemic forced the mass adoption of digital collaboration tools and triggered a sober look at how we spend our time online. Many people are now searching for more meaningful, authentic, and intimate online experiences. These facts point to significant opportunities for online communities a central role in experiences that have traditionally been relegated to in-person, including Executive advisory boards, mastermind groups, industry innovation and much more.

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Welcome, everyone. Excited for you to join us today we're joined by Bill Johnston, a community guru, expert builder. Extraordinary bill's been been building and leading communities, or, and especially helping others build and lead communities for a long time. And I'll let him introduce himself a little bit more in in a second.

But today we're gonna talk about the power of small purposeful communities, which I think in today's day and age is an important. To to think about. My observation is everybody's about grow, grow, grow in terms of community, but not necessarily talking about how are. Finding our right audience, engaging that audience, and, and really having meaningful purpose in, in our community gathering.

So excited to, to get into that. I'm Kyle from Gradwell. That's, uh, that's all I'm gonna say. Nope, I'm not the important person here. I'll leave it to Bill. The way that this will work is Bill's gonna chat for a little bit about some of the things that he's found in his experience in. We're gonna do some, some q and a, so if you have questions, feel free to drop those in the chat as we go, and I'll compile those and be sure to answer those at the, as we get towards the end.

And then we'll do some breakout conversations. So we'll divide up into some small groups, and Bill and I have brainstormed some. Prompts for those conversations to get us started, but they're, they're loosely structured. The goal being to allow you to, to get to know one another and, and learn from one another as community builders.

So, without further ado, Bill would love to, to kick it over to you, to, to walk us through some of the things that you found in your, your community building experience and, and. Awesome. Thank you Kyle, Jerry, and Laura for having me and for everyone, uh, on the line. Now, I'm gonna, of course, I brought slides to a fireside chat because that's just, uh, that's just how I roll.

So, uh, some visual aids to help guide the conversation today. So I'm really excited to be here. Uh, and I genuinely, uh, mean that because we're talking about, uh, a set of topics that are really important to. And I am able to share one of my favorite and frankly one of the most impactful community projects that, that I've ever worked on.

So, obviously I'm Bill, Um, I have been working in communities in some form or another since the late nineties. I got my big break with tech in the, in the late nineties. And also, and I think this will come into play a couple of times throughout the session. Uh, around the time that I got my, uh, first position in community at Tech Republic, I was also a company of friends organizer for Fast Company.

So while I was building an online community, I was also facilitating a local company of Friends chapter in Louisville, Kentucky. Right. So, uh, it was, I just feel very fortunate to have been, uh, kind of tasked with that online offline blend out of the gate. Since, or up to about 2015, I was mostly on the brand side with Autodesk and Dell.

I helped launch a lot of the foundational, uh, programs along with others at Autodesk, and then got to be part of the, um, the smack team, social media, and community team. Community team at Dell, uh, which was a lot of fun and allowed me to see how big global social and community programs work. Uh, had a lot of fun along the way.

And then in 2015, I founded and launched, uh, Structure three C to essentially the way I was telling friends at the time was I really loved what I was doing at Autodesk, but I wanted to do it for five or six companies at the same. So I launched Structure in 2015 where a consultancy focused on strategy and design for communities and community programs and related initiatives, uh, shall we say.

Um, so, uh, today, really, I mean, what are we gonna talk about over the next 20 minutes or so? I mentioned, I get to share with you one of my favorite, uh, community projects that I've ever worked on. It was a small pilot research project, which I'll get into in just a second, and then I wanna. Offer some observations about how we may, we as community leaders may be missing out on a range of opportunities and share a bit of research and guidance on how to think about those opportunities for your particular org.

So I hope that sounds like a good use of time for everyone. And then just to address the, the. Family picture. Uh, I for this, these decks, I used to have a picture of me speaking on stage that, I mean, it was, it's beautiful. It looks great. It's like wide angle. Um, I look great in it for a change, but it occurred to me was kind of weird, right?

Cause like I'm presenting and there's a picture of me presenting and you don't really need to see that. So instead you have my lovely family. This is us in Face LA just above Florence on January. 2020 before we knew what was in store for us. Right. So that's why everybody's smiling, which is one of my favorite, uh, memories.

So, um, I'm passing it along to you as well. So, to start a question for you. When you think about the word purpose, I'm just curious as a thought experiment, um, what comes to mind for you? Right. That was, uh, as I get into the slides and start to tell the story of the, the project that we were working on.

That was something that we struggled with a lot. Like what if, if we're thinking about purpose and the role of purpose, particularly in communities, what, what does that really mean? And for me, I like to think of it the way my colleague Brian Dick thinks of it, which is net Net your reason for getting up in the morning, your reason for being.

He says it more formally because he's a professor at Colorado State, which is people's identification of, and the intention to pursue particularly high valued overarching life goals. At the end of the day, it's your reason for getting out of bed. And what does that mean for community? Well, I think it means a lot of things and I think we thought about it and I include, we and I include myself in the we.

I think we've thought about purpose. And potentially a, a slightly superficial way, like we talk about shared purpose a lot in community building. Um, but what does that mean beyond getting to a vision statement that everybody can agree on? I would assert it means understanding at the member level. Their actual individual purpose and how that might align with your organization.

And further, I would assert that a community's job, in part is to help individual members actualize or act on their purpose. And I'll talk about that a bit more right now. So in 2016, right after I started structure, I was offered a fellowship position with something called the Life Reimagined Institute, and the goal of that institute was to understand the role of purpose in everyone's lives.

In particular, our cohort was brought in to understand the role of purpose potentially in an online community. So I was one of four folks on a team to conduct a pilot to really experiment with the role of purpose in a community. And so as our small team came together, I was lead. I was joined by Brian Dick, who's a professor at Colorado State, and then our colleagues, Brooke Arrow and Roberta Taylor came together to brainstorm.

A hypothesis around the pilot, what we might test and how we might test it. And our hypothesis was by introducing, uh, a focus on purpose via an online community intervention, both the health and wellbeing of individual members as well as the overall community would be improved, right? And so we designed a six week pilot.

So they, The overall rhythm of the pilot, if you will, was supported by a set of synchronous webinars and conversations, not dissimilar to this one. And then we gave the group, the pilot group, we recruited about a hundred people and gave them some content to read on their own and then started to introduce them to the concepts of purpose.

And also to understand how purpose plays a role in their both personal and professional lives. And this was incredibly important to us because, uh, a couple of years before Brian, Professor Brian Dick had done some research with a colleague around, um, around purpose. And one of the key findings from that study in 2013 was, if you know your purpose, like if I know absolutely I'm supposed to be, Like the most amazing community moderator in the entire world.

But I am not, Um, that's what I'm called to do, but I can't act on that purpose. I'm fundamentally worse off across any psychosocial variable that you can imagine. Like literally you're, you're, you're better off. Uh, To to be blissfully unaware of your purpose than to be prevented from acting on it. So it was really important for us to not only design this pilot, to introduce the concept of purpose, to guide people through defining and helping refine their purpose within the community, but also to give 'em a path towards actualization.

Right. And so a couple of other things about this. We, um, we designed the, the pilot used a platform that unfortunately gradual wasn't available. So we, we picked another one at the time. Uh, this was, I mean, before Jerry had a great idea to, to do this. And again, it was a mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities over a series of six weeks.

Um, specifically what that activity looked like was week one was onboarding. So the folks that we recruited, we brought them in. We had a welcome session, a get to Know You session, and we introduced kind of the baseline. Concepts of, of purpose, uh, around essentially how Brian, uh, and and his colleagues had thought about it.

So they had some curriculum available and we did an onboarding and baseline survey for 20 psychosocial variables because we wanted to measure pre and post pilot sort of what change, if any, might happen for week two. It was about, um, starting to define your purpose and kind of plan how you. Bring that into the world.

Uh, week three was about connecting purpose with your, um, with your work or, uh, or vocation. So in some cases this was, uh, even thinking about volunteering. And then week four through six was about really getting specific about that plan. Sharing it with the community, helping the community and colleagues and friends that folks were making within the community kind of collectively refine and socialize that purpose.

It ultimately culminated in week six where everyone was sharing out their plan and making good commitment to, um, essentially act on it. Right. And the shared space with others, uh, which was a, a really incredible experience and a really incredible thing to be part of. Um, it is interesting to note, although we intended to shut the community down after, like week seven of this pilot, we had a small cohort of folks who stayed active on the community for almost a year after, uh, the six week pilot, which was just incredible to me.

So what happened, right? If we, I mentioned we were gonna measure, So, so what actually happened in the. What we saw was of the 20 psychosocial variables that we measured, we saw significant gains on 12 of them. And just in just a relatively short period of time. So, you know, we were benchmarking things like happiness, resilience, presence of meaning in their lives, the career decisions, self-efficacy.

So how, how, you know, um, How capable do you feel of making decisions and acting on them for your career and that sort of thing. And we saw gains across all of those in addition to reduction and loneliness and feelings of depression. Right. Which it was just incredible. Was just absolutely incredible. And then that was, uh, supported by, uh, a lot of the qualitative write-in answers that we got from the exit survey and, and, you know, acknowledging.

even though the curriculum and the webinars were important, that the, because this was collectively done in a community, in a safe community space, that, um, that community was a key ingredient right to this, to this success. And for me, it was just, I, I was blown away. Like I suspected it would work. Um, I suspected people would be interested in participating, but I was absolutely blown away with just some of the really profound.

Feedback we got, uh, as we were, as we were exiting. I mean, I thought at best we would get, Oh, this has been a really interesting experience. Thanks. And you know, there were instances where people were like, I have like, literally had a life changing experience. Um, and so, you know, for us as a team or with the takeaways, well, number one, like it worked, right?

Our hypothesis proved to be true. It was relatively e. Uh, Right. Uh, we saw effects, and Brian pointed this out, uh, in our, in our debriefing, you know, after we finished the pilot, that the effects were similar to those of one-on-one counseling. Right. But, Was with a group and it was a lot less overhead than one to one counseling.

And because we had a model and a study that it was replicable and extensible, right? And so this, this pilot that I was so fortunate to be a part of early in the, the sort of start of structure, three C has been a bit of a red thread through all of our work. So no matter what, we always try to, you know, craft strategy with an eye towards.

How might we, uh, because we mostly work in enterprise, how might we add a layer of this purpose actualization to, uh, to any of the communities that we work with? So, zooming out, right, like what are potentially the implications for, for community for us as community builders and leaders? Well the first, um, if you'll indulge me here, uh, with a little vanilla ice reference, I think Gen X will get this.

Hopefully everybody else will too. I feel like we're way too focused on optimization, efficiency and experiences centered around support and knowledge management. In many cases, those are critical parts of a community program. They have to be. Uh, but we've just become so myopically focused on problem solving.

As I offer as a counterpoint to Mr. Ice here, uh, I think that is kind of stale and I think there's an opportunity to evolve it. So how might we evolve it? Right. I think there are, from the perspective of opening the aperture to the possible and starting to identify opportunities to weave in purpose, to maybe go smaller scale, to potentially create communities for folks that.

Maybe haven't before. Uh, maybe we think about the following things. So one thing potentially to think about is this idea of breadth and depth, right? So, uh, as you notice on the diagram, most, not all, but most community programs are focused on support and they're focused on the role of manager or individual contributor, Right?

Especially with with tech communities. And my assertion is if you think about the opportunities from a breadth perspective, Community can play a forms of community and collaboration can play a meaningful role in pretty much any customer facing business function, right front. Be that innovation, be that marketing, uh, you know, Be that training.

Uh, and so I think we're missing, uh, the boat from a breadth perspective and just focusing on support and knowledge management use cases. And then from a depth perspective, thinking about who we're trying to engage with community programs. Right? So, Typically we focus, and I've been as guilty as anyone of this really in my career.

A lot of the communities that ordered us were focused on, focused on end users. Right. And like that's a great place to start, but it's not a great place to stop. Right? And so I, I feel like, especially given, if you think about where we're coming, The last two years, we've just gone through the largest synchronous forced adoption of collaborative technologies and habit changes in human history.

Right. So I would assert that presents some opportunity to engage roles that we probably haven't been able to engage before, including more senior executives. Right. So just as an example on the depth side of. Of the diagram here, like for students to specifically high school and college, like maybe there's a next gen program where we have like smaller local meetups or sessions to talk about their vision for the future of a particular industry or area of study that, that they're pursuing.

For like the VP and director, like maybe there's a future practice style of mastermind coming together around like a vertical, uh, or a piece of technology or a trend, uh, that you're dealing with. And then executives who have absolutely had to learn how to use Zoom. Other collaborative tools that we might have really hesitated to try and do anything online with over the last couple of years, like I think there are legitimate opportu.

To, um, to try and engage like really senior executives in smaller, more intimate private communities at this point. Uh, which I think is, is pretty amazing. Right. So really zooming out to look at the, the kind of realm of the possible. So if there's a breadth and depth component to this, uh, I think another place we need to zoom out, if you will, is around ideas of, of journey models, right?

So typically we're focused on. Like path to purchase, we're focused on from trial to, uh, adoption. But typically journey models are super short. And I would assert to really understand the community opportunities you have to look at at career, right? You have to look at a span of career. So, uh, I'm from primarily an enterprise software, uh, background.

And so, you know, if you think about. Uh, Autodesk, right? And we had digital tools that were incredibly complex, incredibly hard to learn and master, but that folks in an industry like manufacturing would use for their entire career, right? So Autodesk has an opportunity to engage someone from high school and university all the way to executive leadership, right?

And that further, you know, if you look at. That career journey, you know, there are arcs to it, right? Like maybe there's an executive track, maybe there's like a skill practitioner or practice lead track. But that, you know, a couple of points here where communities particularly good, we found, we found they're great in supporting moments of transition or periods of disruption or transformation, right?

And so like every one of those little red or blue do. Could be a type of community or a community based experience, particularly the ones that we're talking about today, right? Purpose. So purpose tied to expression to purpose via vocation. You know, those could all be, you know, separate community experiences tied together in a program.

Uh, and just getting a little more specific about this, you know, if you think about it, starting from a support and knowledge management perspective at the university and entry. Perspective, like folks are learning, uh, folks have significant time invested in using the software. Like they, they're at a very high level of readiness and need for things like support and knowledge management, right?

Cause they're in the software, they're learning it, they're hitting bugs, like, you know, all the, all the stuff. All the things. But as they move on beyond those roles, The support in KM use cases become less, uh, less relevant. Right. Especially for if you think about somebody who's on path to, uh, executive, they're spending less time learning the software and less time.

Spent in the software. So they're gonna have less time to offer a CAM or support community. And even a practice leader, you know, they're managing others using software. And again, apologies for sticking to an enterprise software example, but just for the sake of continuity, I will. Um, so they're, they're spending less time in the software.

They're not, you know, probably hitting things that they would need support or knowledge management for. Uh, but there are other ways to. You know, needs that these folks may have in a brand supported way. Right? So just as in a really rough sketch of trying to make the point of zooming out from our typical journey models to look at career or longer sort of equivalent lifespans for other types of stakeholders, right?

But like really kind of zooming out here. And then the last point is, um, and you know, we've all probably. Either been involved in one of these organizations or, um, or at least know of them. You know, there's so many organizations now servicing a range of needs for, um, for folks seeking to advance, invest in themselves, and I would argue, pursue.

Purposeful activities, right? So as a, for instance, this is a survey of essentially mastermind style organizations that are typically paid offerings, right? So when I was at Dell and then later at Autodesk, uh, we were part of social So for several tens of thousands of dollars each year, we got five seats to this council.

And for that, we got to interact with a curated network of peers. We got to go to a conference once a year and we had the ability to interact. Uh, online, right? So, and that was a pretty high price point and plenty of people were paying it. Uh, and there are a number of other organizations serving other verticals and roles.

And so this is really just a sketch showing from visibility and validation, which is how I would categorize the Fast Company executive board, all the way to trying to navigate the future, which is where I would put things like Peter Dices, OFS 360 Network, like these are these, Networks that people are essentially buying into.

So clearly number one, there's value, and number two, there's need. So what might some the future in a way look like for these organizations? Well, I think we're already starting to see it happen. I'd like to call your attention to center of the screen, the CMO club. So Salesforce bot the CMO Club, I think three years ago.

Right? So, Not just, you know, supporting it. Not just sponsoring it. They like flat out bought it because that was, that was a group of people that they wanted to talk to, both customers and non-customers. And they thought there was value in essentially hosting that network. Another example, all the way to the right, there's a company called oh nine who is essentially a supply team management, uh, platform.

Uh, that has some interesting AI aspects to it as well. I don't know a lot about supply chain, uh, fortunately or unfortunately, so I just have a general idea of what their business model is and what the tool does. But one interesting thing that they've done is they have a series of networks and councils.

Uh, under the guise and brand of AIM 10 x focused on issues that are at the intersection of supply chain management and sustainability. So they're, they're kind of met investing and standing up these kind of purpose driven mastermind style communities and councils for their customers. Right. Which I think is really amazing.

And so it's like we're starting to see brands make some, I would argue, pretty significant investment. Uh, And these, uh, styles of organizations. So again, just really quickly, uh, going into a little more detail here. Um, you know, the CMO Club is made up, although it is quite large, right? And we're talking about smaller, intimate, uh, Um, solutions here.

They have chapters in 35 cities across the globe. So you can imagine those are smaller, relatively speaking, contextual, uh, meetups. And then they have a number of, um, a number of services and offerings that bridge both in person, sometimes at events, uh, like industry events and online. But again, Salesforce just, you know, flat out invested and, and bought this network.

Right. Um, which is, I think very much in line with the conversations that, that we've been having, uh, over the last 20 minutes or so. And then just a really quick, deeper dive on the oh nine Solutions aimed. Aim 10 x uh, uh, approach here. So they have an innovators network, which is the broader kind of network of folks focused on supply chain and, um, and sustainability.

And then they have these council models, which are, um, one is for executives and then one is more for, uh, really middle management. Uh, but again, like oh nine has. Net investments in these, in these organizations as a kinda a mastermind style, purposeful, uh, community. So if we know all this kind of, how might we think about contextualizing it to, to our efforts more day to day?

So, If you think about the breadth and depth model, one thought experiment internally for your organization might really be cross functions and thinking about what altitude your community offerings are currently operating at, there are likely gaps, right, in both business function and um, level of seniority.

So identifying those gaps initial. Could be like a, a signal for, uh, uh, uh, valuable places to play. The second is once you identify particularly the roles, thinking about simple career journey models and moments of truth and moments of transition and transformation, and thinking about how might a smaller purposeful community support those transitions, uh, over the lifetime.

And then thirdly, you know, we know. Just by proxy, by the fact that folks are paying to be part of these networks, that they're valuable and that there's high perceived value. So are there spaces to play for your brand where you have permission, you have an interesting network that's not activated where you might.

You know, launch something of your own that's hosting that industry, that issue, that technology, future style conversation, right? That would be like just three quick things based upon what we've talked about where I might be tempted to dig in, uh, if I were back on the brand side. All right, so coming in for a landing here, just to recap.

Ideally, you're identifying ways to help your customers or other stakeholders actualize their purpose through community. I hope I've given you at least a verbal whiteboard sketch of, of what might, what that might look like with the examples from, uh, from Life Reimagined. And again, like identifying opportunities is really about looking at gaps in breadth.

So business function and depth, which is seniority, and then thinking about for those gaps. Where might that opportunity lie? And you know, bottom line for me is like if I were to give you like the sort of bumper sticker version of what I'm saying is a mastermind style community pilot. Would be a great way to jump in and test and learn in a fairly low stakes, low overhead flow investment way.

So with all of that said, um, if you're interested in going deeper, obviously I'm here, we're going to have some more fireside chatting. Um, so like we'll get into it, uh, right after this slide. But if you're interested in going deeper, if you're interested in. You know, our ongoing researcher on this topic, uh, reports that we have, et cetera, please, uh, reach out.

And then one last thing is, uh, we did just release our strategy design process. So if you go to structure three, the homepage promo is essentially that, you know, access to that, um, strategy design process, which does. Not focus exclusively on, uh, purpose communities, but um, but does touch on it. And with that said, I'm gonna take a breath, take a drink of water, and, um, Kyle, bounce it back to you for, uh, for our conversations and questions.

You got it. And I thank you very much for going through that. I'm gonna, I'm gonna talk long enough that you can actually get that, that drink of water, uh, vamp a little bit there for you. All right. We're, we're good Cuz I, I've got questions. I'm gonna jump, I'm gonna jump right in. Can I, do you mind, uh, Stopping your slide share so I can Oh, yeah, just we'll take it into the, As promised.

As advertised fireside chat mode here. Love it. Look at, look at that. Okay. Did I, Am I sharing? Yeah, you're good. No, we're all, We're all clear. Thank you. Really appreciate the invitation today. Jerry and Team Kyle, thanks for being a great host. And, uh, yeah, if folks have any additional questions, feel free to reach out to us.

Thank you for joining everybody. We'll, we'll see you at our next one. You can hit events as you leave. We've got another conversation coming up, um, November 10th, and then another one early December, and we would love to, to have you all join us at those as well. And we'll hang out for a little bit if anybody wants to chat or, or say hi or, or discuss anything else.

But thank you all so much for.

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