(Re)discovering communities

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Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/franckreporter

Over the past couple of years I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about innovation and creativity. Much of that circled around the power of collaboration, and the benefits of homogeneous and heterogenous teams, something that I also spent time thinking about during my MBA, when reading about (corporate) organisational structures.

Since then I’ve developed some of these thoughts, to contemplate ‘communities’.  The drivers of that have been situations where I have seen very passionate communities achieve incredible things, often without formal leaders (though informal ‘leaders’ often become apparent), as well as situations where communities have not formed,  but were they to do so, I believe, might have incredible power that might not be possible through more formal efforts (teams, leadership, extrinsic incentivisation, etc.).

Defining ‘communities’

Wikipedia describes communities as “usually small, social unit of any size that shares common values“.  This sounds to me a lot like a ‘team’ (Wikipedia describes teams as “a group of people [...] linked in a common purpose“).

So, the difference seems to be around the difference between ‘values’, and ‘purpose’.  A team exists to achieve something, whereas a community exists because the people in it want to be together, or simply have similarity. It seems possible therefore that a team might have members which do not share common values – depending on how wide ranging or different those values might be, the team might be more or less successful. While heterogeneous teams are commonly understood to perform better due to the diversity that the team members can bring to a situation, one might nevertheless expect the team’s values to be consistent, to ensure that a ‘brand’ image is maintained (eg, integrity). It also seems that a team has been created (with defined membership) to achieve a purpose, whereas a community might work towards common goals, but the membership is rather more self-defining (ie, by the members themselves).

Wikipedia goes on to say this about communities:

In human communities, intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, risks, and a number of other conditions may be present and common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness.

Since the advent of the Internet, the concept of community has less geographical limitation, as people can now gather virtually in an online community and share common interests regardless of physical location. Prior to the internet, virtual communities (like social or academic organizations) were far more limited by the constraints of available communication and transportation technologies.

In contrast, Wikipedia says the following about teams:

A group in itself does not necessarily constitute a team. Teams normally have members with complementary skills and generate synergy through a coordinated effort which allows each member to maximize his/her strengths and minimize his/her weaknesses. Team members need to learn how to help one another, help other team members realize their true potential, and create an environment that allows everyone to go beyond their limitations.[1] A team becomes more than just a collection of people when a strong sense of mutual commitment creates synergy, thus generating performance greater than the sum of the performance of its individual members.

Thus, Manchester United football players would be a team, whereas fans of Manchester United could potentially be described as a community (though perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the community as the core group of those fans that are ‘active’ fans, perhaps part of a fan club, meeting regularly, or even those who actively lobby / evangelise about the football club).

I particularly like Wikipedia’s reference to the impact of the Internet, which I will once again repeat here:

Since the advent of the Internet, the concept of community has less geographical limitation, as people can now gather virtually in an online community and share common interests regardless of physical location. Prior to the internet, virtual communities (like social or academic organizations) were far more limited by the constraints of available communication and transportation technologies.

This has incredible power. Prior to the internet a certain community might never have existed, or grown to become more than one or two people, due to the ‘common interest / values’ being held by only a niche population (but even small percentages of very large populations, even if still sometimes [but not always] limited by common language, or other shared values, can still be meaningful groups of people).

So what is it about the internet (and by that, one should also read ‘intranets’) that enables communities?

One could start with things like email, and the world-wide web / web pages (bringing easy, low cost one-to-many communications). But the real power came with what is described as ‘Web 2.0′ (bringing easy, low cost many-to-many communications) – that meant forums, social media sites and tools, instant messaging, etc.

But it would be wrong to solely credit the internet with the communities that are enabled. The true power of communities still lies in ‘why’ communities form – that is, the ‘common values‘. I like to interpret this as ‘common passion‘. It is the ‘passion’ that causes people to do things for intrinsic benefit – because it brings them joy to do something, for themselves, but also for the benefit of others, without pay. That said, people can sometimes earn a ‘reward’ or ‘remuneration’ for their efforts (usually requiring a certain level of professional quality, whereas community efforts might sometimes be limited to more amateur efforts, or because the rewards are (at least partly) ‘re-invested’ in helping the community achieve more).

I mentioned above ‘typically more amateur’ efforts, but many communities include members that bring skills to the community which relate to community members other activities (eg, a job, or other communities) which can give a community a special, sometimes professional feel, especially since those skills are often brought without cost (at least when not relating to creative or labour skills, not requiring raw materials or third party resources).

So how does one ‘create’ a community?

The ‘passion’ needs to exist already, to a certain extent – that is, a belief that something is worth spending time and effort on. That might come from a belief that there can be personal/joint gain (intrinsic or extrinsic), from nostalgia, or from there being a meaningful impact to others (eg, supporting a cause).

While common ‘passion’ may already exist, it may benefit from being better ‘defined’ or having a ‘central focus’, so that potential community members can better observe the existence of the community, and see the correlation with their own values / interests.

That ‘definition’ or ‘central focus’ might be someone, or a tool that allows people to share their feelings or views on a topic. This is where the internet / intranet tools come in, but those tools still need to be refined to capture the trust of the community (people might wonder whether this particular tool is the right one to get involved with, whether the community will grow around it, etc.) – that trust might require some investment (time, money, or simply passion / effort), or perhaps it comes from already-trusted community ‘leaders’, whose reputation (and them risking that reputation in being involved in a community) earns them followers.

Aside from the above, a community may reach a certain ‘tipping point’, where membership, and activities reach a certain point, where the community ‘takes off’. Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book ‘The Tipping Point‘ covers the complexity of understanding when and why such developments take place.

Conclusion

In this post I’ve talked in largely theoretical terms, despite having in my mind some very concrete examples (some readers will likely know what I am referring to) – I didn’t want to elaborate on those, because I think anyone reading this will have their own examples in mind, and I don’t want to anchor you around my community experiences (though normally I think examples add a lot of value to a blog post).

For me, the goal of contemplating communities is to learn from those great examples of effective communities to see where, and then how new communities might be developed, to bring together common values to achieve fantastic things – that can indeed be part of a professional situation, but if effective, that is often when work ceases to be ‘work’.

It is the ‘intrinsic’ motivation of ‘unlimited’ communities that can often give them so much more power than (limited) teams that are put together to achieve a certain purpose. On the flip-side, communities decide themselves where they want to go – one should not try to divert that, since one then risks ‘breaking’ the community, as the values may no longer be correlated with the desired purpose.

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