Mennonite Community Cookbook

Recently some emails I’ve received, accompanied by taking responsibility for cooking most of my family’s Thanksgiving dinner, have gotten me pondering the nature of community management. For obvious reasons, it’s something I think about a fair bit, but for the last while I’ve kind of burned out on the questions that typically float around the community management-o-sphere. What should the role entail, what companies need it, what tools should a community manager use, what role should the community manager play in brand management — that sort of thing.

Instead, I’ve been thinking about community management a lot more… anthropologically. Because it occurred to me, while buying ham and peeling potatoes, that I’ve learned as much that’s of value in how I do my job from my family background as I have from my professional background. As I’ve mentioned before, my family is Mennonite, which is as much a culture as it is a religion (and of course the values of one strongly shape the other). Many of the strongest connecting threads in Mennonite culture are, as far as I’m concerned, equally essential to good community management.

And so last weekend while I was flipping to page 308 of the Mennonite Community Cookbook to confirm the correct oven temperature for apple crisp (375F), it occurred to me that that book provided a fine illustrative object in some important factors in Mennonite culture (in which cooking and food figure very prominently) and in community management.

Definitions of Common Cooking Terms

I am not someone who believes you need any special talent to be able to cook reasonably well. Yes, some people are just gifted with a certain culinary flair, but most folks can manage to do a reasonably tasty job, too. It does, however, require some basics.

You have to know how to read if you’re going to follow a recipe. You have to know what the shorthand forms of measurements mean (tsp? oz?), as well as what actions cooking terms refer to (what’s the difference between whipping and beating?) You also need a copy of a recipe, the ingredients to make it, the utensils to assemble it, and likely a stove or oven to cook it. The barrier to entry is relatively low for most people, but there is some effort required.

In community management, so much of the work in web-driven, as are so many of the tools used, that the barrier to entry is also pretty low. There aren’t yet any set in stone job requirements because the role hasn’t been around long enough for those standards to evolve.

Plus what every company that needs a community manager needs her to do is a little bit different. (I use the female pronoun simply for convenience, since I am one. There are plenty of excellent male community managers out there, which I am delighted to see.) Some companies might need a lot of marketing and PR work. Some might need a lot of tech support or web development. Some might need a lot of documentation or customer service. That said, not everyone can (or should) just hop right into the role.

First order of business is to give yourself credit for not being stupid. Seriously. People who are perfectly capable in their professional lives up until the moment they are tasked with taking on community management suddenly forget that they have any competence or people skills. People and companies who want to “join the conversation” tend to worry — a LOT — even before they actually do anything. What if people say negative things about us? What if someone in the company says something publicly that they shouldn’t? And so it goes.

Most of us with any corporate experience have had it thoroughly drilled into our heads what is appropriate to reveal publicly and what isn’t. And some people are going to say negative things about your company whether you’re out there involved or not. Doesn’t matter if you’re a 10-person start-up or a Fortune 500 conglomerate. However, if you’re out there, at least you have a chance to correct erroneous information, apologize for screw-ups, educate the un- or misinformed, and win over detractors and the unconverted.

In terms of ingredients and utensils for community management, I’ve already mentioned a few areas of job responsibility that provide a good background for the role. Really, there is value in the skills and experience gained in everything from software development to events management. More valuable are your personality, creativity, and attitude.

Like the skills and experience needed in the role, the technical tools you’ll need vary. For example, for a company in the entertainment space, a strong presence on MySpace and Facebook is a really good idea. For a company dealing in tech and Web 2.0, I’d recommend a Twitter account. At an insurance company, wiki adoption will probably be strong (but MySpace will be irrelevant).

…”the worth of good cooking.”

Cooking for people is a pretty universally acknowledged way to express love. Eating good food is a pleasurable act. Making an effort, preparing something you know family or guests will like, nourishing them, organizing a special occasion where you can spend quality time relaxing and talking. Good stuff. Remembering people’s food preferences, making something just for a specific person, instead of any other recipe in the world (including something you might like better), giving generously of your time, work, and money to pull off a great meal; these are ways to let people know they’re important to you.

Just as meals can be, recipes themselves are often, to borrow from Hugh MacLeod, social objects (and cooking a social gesture, etc.). It is a compliment when someone likes something you’ve made and asks for the recipe. There are standard and accepted ways of disseminating recipes. Remember 3×5 recipe cards?

Nowadays more of my recipes exist in my Delicious links or email archives than on paper, but those, too, have become standard ways of sharing among my friends (typically after they’ve been tried and were hits). Additionally, the sharing of recipes or discussion of cooking results or the comparison of the merits of various ingredients is a very strong way to build community among those who cook.

In the business world, all jobs require you to get various things done. Daily tasks, one-off tasks, fiddly things you hate doing, long-term projects, we’ve all got a combination of them. But two people can do the same job, and one can be a total rock star, and the other can be barely tolerable due to performance, personality, and other factors.

In community management, being a rock star requires you to show some love. Do you have to love that bitchy blogger who writes nothing but ill-informed snark about your products? No, but you can’t respond to the person with the same tactics. Flies, honey, vinegar. Yeah, your grandma was right. And if you actually care about your community (when you care they tend to be a community, not just users), it shows. It shows in how you approach and respond to them. What you remember about them between interactions. What you’re willing to do for them (and their gratitude for your efforts). And what it becomes reasonable for you to ask from them in return (and your gratitude when you receive it).

People are willing to go out of their way for you, even forgive a lot, if they feel like they matter to you as much as you (or your products) do to them. People will hold you to standards of being human. Yeah, you’ll still screw up. So will they. Apologize, explain what went wrong, fix it, move on. They’ll expect you to address them politely and with respect, and will respond in kind.

They’ll appreciate a little personality, some joking around, which can make doing business — especially when things are stressful — rather more fun. Just because you’re a representative of a company doesn’t mean you have to strip your presence and persona down to bits and bytes. Doesn’t mean you have to hide who you are while trying to figure out how the hell to act like a brand. (Seriously, huh?) People are more comfortable listening to and dealing with someone they know than with faceless bureaucracy, forms, and bone dry interactions.

To Measure Dry Ingredients

For a recipe to come out right, you need to pay attention to the directions. Forget the sugar and your cookies won’t exactly be a delectable treat. Forget to turn off the oven and remove the pan and your lasagna will be a 9×13 cinder. But at the same time, those who really excel at cooking aren’t afraid to break the rules. Without innovators we wouldn’t have gluten- or dairy-free recipes for those with digestive issues. We wouldn’t have fusion cuisines. We wouldn’t have grown past our mothers’ 70s cooking and its omnipresent cream of mushroom soup and processed cheese.

But to be a good innovator, besides creativity you need to understand what you’re starting with. You need to know how much moisture applesauce adds to a dish before just randomly replacing oil with it. You need to know how various herbs smell and taste (especially in combination) before you consider switching them up in a savory loaf or sauce. Bottom line, you need to know how to cook before you can start cooking creatively.

As a community manager, you need to set certain standards for how you do things. It can be hard, given that the role is new, expectations of it continue to evolve, new tools to use become available all the time, and standard forms of metrics and measurement don’t often apply well to things like social media outreach.

But there are good reasons to lay these foundations. How quickly will you respond to people when they ask questions or report issues? Via what channels will you report product launches, bug fixes, planned maintenance down time, and other aspects of operations? What is your “friending” policy? Is it okay for developers to interact directly with the community, or is it preferred that the community manager act as the go-between?

Organizing how things typically run enables you to determine the most efficient ways to adapt if something breaks down, or to know what didn’t work on a particular initiative and what to try next. It also makes it easier for someone to take the wheel when you’re unavailable. Because even if you love your community, a community manager needs a social life and a vacation from time to time.

At the same time, having a framework for how things percolate along, and knowing your users and their usage patterns, will enable you to customize their experience interacting with you. Sure, you have your set of tools and standard information about your products and whatnot, but knowing the person you’re talking to is very tech savvy means you can skip the intro steps to explaining how to fix something, for example, for which the user will likely be quite grateful. If you know what business a user works in, and you need to explain something, you can tailor your examples of applications of your product to those involving the person’s industry, thus making them more accessible. If you know a person refers back to emails a lot, you can make the effort to mostly correspond that way, enabling the person to simply do a quick search for answers next time instead of contacting you.

Food for a Barn Raising

On page 455 of the Mennonite Community Cookbook there is one final entry. It’s not something many cooks these days would have use for. It was probably a charming anachronism in 1950 when the cookbook was first published. It’s the list of food for a barn raising. The last line says “Enough food for 175 men”.

Now, the modern cook or baker has very likely never had to cook for 175 men. Plus, the women who did accomplish this feat did it without Kitchenaid mixers, food processors, fridges, or electric or gas stoves. So reading through that list (which starts with 115 lemon pies, by the way), results in some mind boggling. How did they do that?

Now, I’ve actually been to a barn raising. We made a lot of sandwiches, and to my recollection there weren’t 175 men there (at least not all at once). But I love that page in the cookbook. I love thinking about organizing such an event and keeping that many people working efficiently and quickly. I love thinking about the women who could handle the preparation, logistics, and execution of feeding that many people, and feeding them well. (There would, of course, have been plenty of women and children to be fed, along with the 175 men.) I love thinking about the circumstances that would require as big a project as building a new barn. (In my family’s case it was to replace one lost to fire.)

As with any job, in community management you can do just fine with a certain amount of skill and experience, a certain amount of effort, and a certain amount of interest. But as I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve been thinking about community management anthropologically. Because community management is about community, and communities are made up of people. People, or at least the lives they lead, are made up of stories. And anthropology is made up of those stories, from the big ones encompassing entire cultures that we call archetypes and codexes and oral histories to the small ones of individuals that are read in bones and faded photos and parchments.

When your interest in the environment in which you find yourself takes you beyond what will enable you to just get the job done — takes you into lives and the stories — that is where you become at risk of finding yourself immersed in something truly rewarding. Where you find yourself becoming a builder and shaper, rather than just someone punching a clock. And where your company begins to develop its own culture, one that rewards those who are part of it, and that exists in symbiosis with the greater environment in which it is a part, whether industry, internet, or what have you.

And you just might become someone who, to your own mind, just does your part to achieve the raising of your particular barn, whatever form it may take, while those around you look on in admiration and incomprehension, wondering… How does she do that?

Food for a Barn Raising

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