Community Manager or Community Sherpa?

What's in a title?

While a lot of us community types don't get caught up in what you call us (we prefer to be catalysts in getting the job done), the fact remains that those outside of our sphere sometimes fixate a bit too much on the word 'manager' in our typical title.  In point of fact, some of the most successful community people I've run across are closer to a community 'sherpa' than they are to a community 'manager.'  What is the difference, you might ask, and does this mean that they don't perform typical 'management' tasks?

The answer to the second part of that question is no - in fact, they can and do step in to get their hands dirty on tactical tasks (moderating forums, building content, refereeing competing interests) all the time.  However, building an effective community requires someone who is also fairly strategic (the 'sherpa').  This strategy comes to the forefront in areas such as charting the community direction, or determining how the community may need to interface with a sponsoring organization. Does this mean that every community person starts out in the sherpa category?  Speaking from my own experience, I'd have to say the answer is no to that question as well. While there may be natural born community sherpas, I think that the far more usual path is that community managers are groomed to become sherpas.

Let me bring in an analogy from my primary career path (before I started drifting into community work). In computer science, there are computer programmers and software engineers (and at higher levels, software architects).  No one in the computer field expects individuals to come directly out of college as software engineers (despite what their starting job title may be).  Computer programmers are very adept at taking very specific specifications and building something that meets those specifications.  However, they do not have enough experience to consider how what they're building fits into the larger picture.  Software engineers, on the other hand, are a mix of tactical ability (writing code) as well as understanding the ramifications of what they're building.  This allows them to interface with other engineers and systems architects to help provide strategic leadership to software development efforts.  In general, programmers work in conjunction with software engineers until they reach an experience level where they can become software engineers as well.

At this point, readers are probably asking this question: 'Are you saying I have to hire two people to work on building/running my community?'  Interestingly, Vanessa DiMauro does argue for a separation of manager and strategy functions in this blog post. While I can see her point, I think that most organizations would probably be better off hiring what I'm calling a 'community sherpa,' and then, as their community grows and becomes successful, bringing in a 'community manager' to be groomed by the current sherpa.  If this sounds like an apprenticeship, that's exactly right - learning how to deliver an effective mix of community tactics and strategy takes time and experience.  Community people may have a natural affinity for the overall role, but they need to learn how to effectively apply strategy and tactics in equal measure.

Also, remember that you never know where you might find a community person hiding in another career.  A lot of times, they can be in a slightly tangential career path, but their aptitude and desire make them ideal candidates to take on community roles (and they could be ready to step in as sherpas with just a little coaching).  In my case, I found that while I enjoyed technology (I still do), I had a set of strategic skills acquired through having to interface with different software engineering groups (Quality Assurance, Configuration Management, etc.) that set me on the path to doing community consulting.  However, even those skills required refining by working with others who had more community experience than I did.

So, now it's your turn to sound off - are you a community manager or a community sherpa?  Do you agree with the distinctions I've drawn?  Either way, I'd love to hear your opinion.  Thanks for reading!


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