How ‘Engagement Roles’ Blur Organizational Boundaries

Noh Your RolesEffective customer and constituent engagement starts with a clear picture of desired outcomes. When organizations lack this clarity, they’re missing a critical bridge between their mission and their day-to-day interactions with the people who bring that mission to life.

Having clarity on engagement outcomes means knowing in advance what you want people to do. “Engagement roles” are one way to do that.

Engagement roles represent specific types of work that need to get done for the organization to achieve its objectives. They work like position descriptions, except you can use them for people outside an organization as well as inside it.

A couple examples:

  • “Philanthropic contribution” is an important engagement role in nonprofit organizations. Donors are usually outsiders, but not always. Sometimes staff contribute to their own organization, and when they do they need to be appreciated.
  • “Customer support” is an engagement role once performed only by employees; but that’s changed with the advent of online support forums that enable customers to directly help one another – sometimes even better than staff can.

Engagement roles blur the line between what’s inside an organization and what’s outside it. Framing work through engagement roles exposes the fact that organizational needs can be done by employees, partners or customers; and that helps organizations take more holistically stock of the range of talent available to fulfill its goals.

Let’s say for example that we have an in-house team responsible for publicizing the work of our organization. It’s a good team and, depending upon internal workloads and the skills needed for particular projects, they may contract some work with outside agencies. They need a way to capture the core set of organizational processes that are essential to successful outreach – not a laundry list of project-specific tasks, but the kind of long-lived areas of responsibility that are worth knowing how to do well over and over. Examples include “maintaining good relationships with media contacts” and “collecting customer success stories.”

When we capture these organizational responsibilities as engagement roles, we suspend judgement about who should or shouldn’t be doing them. That abstraction gives organizations more flexibility and speed in responding to what’s happening internally and externally – right now. It might be a new staff member with a new set of skills or it might be a particularly good rate from a partner with some extra capacity this month.

Engagement roles don’t just increase organizational flexibility; sometimes they help us rethink what’s possible.

Let’s say that one of the engagement roles we’ve identified for organizational outreach is ensuring favorable blogger coverage. It’s an engagement role, so we’re not pegging it to staff or agency personnel, and we soon discover we have a handful of enthusiastic customers who are plugged into the blogging community and way more credible than any staff or agency professional would be. So we shift staff and agency resources away from doing the outreach themselves and into engaging these key customers in doing the work.

That outreach now looks dramatically different. The organization has way less control; it can’t force customers to say things a certain way and sometimes they say things completely wrong. But their credibility and connections open new channels of engagement with bloggers and additional customers that we simply wouldn’t have otherwise.

Engagement roles are one technique for scaling an organization from first, to second, to third-order engagement. First-order engagement is engaging employees in the work of the organization. Second-order engagement is employees engaging the customers and partners of the organization. Third-order engagement is when customers and partners participate in engaging other customers and partners. Third-order engagement is the cutting edge of organizational development right now. You can see it in the integral ways Twitter and Facebook engage their customers in building their services. Their customers are the service and they build it everyday through their engagement.

As an idea, the engagement role isn’t some major conceptual breakthrough. It’s really just a way of abstracting the position descriptions we already use at work (note: this is different than a job description – a difference I’ll get into in my next post on “engagement plans“). Engagement roles are a simple trick for separating the work that needs doing from the people who do it, and opening that up to people outside the organization. It’s a simple shift in perspective, but sometimes shifting perspective is all you need for a whole new vision for how to engage people. With the engagement role, that vision starts with first knowing what you want them to do.

Check out more related posts on Engagement.

Image modified from original from: Richard Hopkins


  1. Thank you, Gideon, for guiding me here. Getting “clarity on engagement outcomes” is a more compelling vision than a list of responsibilities or tasks. Just state what and why, and people can take the role and make it work.

    Now curious to learn more, following your link trail.