Nevertheless, we now realize that no whole, be it a family, a business, a community, or a nation, can be managed without looking inward to the lesser wholes that combine to form it, and outward to the greater wholes of which it is a member.”
Allan Savory, from “Holistic Management”
Need a Community? You Have (at least) One
After 15 years of designing and activating online communities, I’m still surprised when I hear from a potential client that they “need to create” an online community. Wether you realize it or not, you have and belong to many communities. Further, you intentionally or unintentionally play many roles within those communities – host, member, participant, advocate, creator, and at times, possibly even destroyer. You may be asking yourself “so, what is a community? How do I know where my community is? How do I define community?” Though typical, those are the wrong questions to start with.
Context is King
The word “community” is problematic. It can have as many meanings as there are people in an organization to make meaning, ranging from the local geographical community, to a peer to peer technical support community, a social media page or a working group focused on solving a specific problem. I’ve held conferences where the question of a canonical definition of community was debated by some of the smartest people I know in the industry, and the question was left unanswered. Why? Two reasons: 1.) a helpful answer must be developed in the strategic context of the host organization and their extended network and 2.) community as a metaphor is often too specific and limiting – why we often see communities as a solution looking for a problem.
To expand on the Savory quote at the beginning of this post, to fully understand the potential for communities in your organization, you have to understand the actual smaller and discrete communities that make up your organization (employees, partners, alumni) , and the larger communities that your organization is a part of (industries, markets, causes, etc.). The “whole”, if you will, is really a network. Increasingly, I find starting a strategy conversation with “community” can be burdensome, and that “network” is a more helpful (and neutral) place to start.
Network as a Rubric
Why “Network”? Network, defined as “a group or system of interconnected people or things” describes a set of connected entities but does not imply or assign activities, relationships or outcomes the way “community” seems to. Using network as a blank canvas allows you to create strategy from drawing from the largest possible pool of value. Thinking “Network” means you are considering the full set of relationships among stakeholders, assets, and increasingly, artificial intelligence actors that could potentially be developed. From the baseline of network, a more holistic strategy can be created that is inclusive of community, social, and digital innovation.
As an example of Network Thinking, I developed the graph below as part of an exercises to inventory and explore opportunities for stakeholder groups allowing access to assets in an online marketplace.
The Future of Networks
“What is true for the machines all around us now is true for us too: We are what we are connected to. And mastery of that connection turns out to be the modern version of Napoleon’s coup d’oeil, the essential skill of the age.”
Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks
One of the best books I’ve read recently is The Seventh Sense” by Joshua Cooper Ramos. In the book, Ramos describes the role of networks in the age of massive disruption that we are beginning to live through – on par with the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. Ramos goes on to evangelize the need to develop a “Seventh Sense”, the ability “to look at any object and see the way in which it is changed by connection” in order to survive and thrive amidst the change. Ramos, along with recent books by Reid Hoffman and great thinking by the team at a16z represent some of the most helpful and cogent thinking on networks and network effects.
I believe we need a new and more holistic approach to develop modern communities – communities that are a significant evolution of the current support and Q&A-based silos. In my own practice I’ve begun to refer to the skills and methodologies for designing modern social networks and communities as “Network Thinking”, and I’ve begun to tag related research and writing as #FoN, or “Future of Networks”. To stay up to date, subscribe to my newsletter here.
I’m currently working with a select list of clients to build modern community and network strategies. If you would like to schedule some time to talk about how I can help, firstname.lastname@example.org.
In March I embarked on a series of qualitative research projects to help organizations prepare for the disruption and opportunity emerging from the Collaborative Economy, and understand what resources they need to be successful. Wave 1 responses are in and the analysis is almost finished. I wanted to share a preview of the results to date. The full set of results will be published in June.
The pool of organizations that completed the survey ranged from Fortune 500 software, media and retail companies to small startups in the sharing economy space. A handful of non-profits also participated.
- A shared understanding of the Collaborative Economy is still forming.
- The Collaborative Economy is relevant to organizations, but the level of urgency isn’t high (yet).
- The most interesting sectors are Learning, Services and Corporate (“Sectors” as described by Crowd Companies Honeycomb model).
- Many organizations see online communities, social networks and collaboration platforms as “enablers” and areas to begin experimentation.
Getting to a crisp definition and shared understanding of the Collaborative Economy is challenging because the concept describes the interplay of a number of other large trends and movements, including (but not limited to) the Sharing Economy, Sustainable Development, Digital Transformation, the Maker Movement, Internet of Things, Future of Making Things and more. In the context of this research project, when asked to describe their understanding of the Collaborative Economy, respondents mainly spoke to 3 key themes of the Collaborative Economy as:An economic model…
“A model in which the creation and exchange of value (of goods, services, knowledge, etc) occurs through human interactions versus (solely) financial transactions. Asset allocation is optimized such that resources are jointly consumed and assets rarely stand idle.”
A social movement…
“Where brands and people start thinking more cooperatively for the greater good…instead of competitively & businesses go back to being more sociable and people-focused.”
A technical platform…
“Coordination of mobile devices, cashless payment systems, reliable rating mechanisms to get value from each other as opposed to centralized corporation of assets.”
- Don’t understand how to formulate a strategy
- Don’t have the necessary vision, leadership and resources to engage
- Don’t see a burning platform of missed opportunity or competitive threat
- Aren’t willing (yet) to make the investments in platforms, partnerships, open collaboration and the making corporate assets available.
The respondents who did indicate a high level of urgency, and had active pilots, were engaging in activities ranging from: investment in or partnership with complimentary startups, development of platforms and marketplaces, evolving existing social business programs, and re-developing the value exchanges of their online communities. These pilot programs will be covered in more detail in the final report.
3. Emerging Sectors
Research participants were asked to rank certain sectors of the Collaborative Economy by level of interest. The sector categories were sourced from the Crowd Companies Honeycomb model.
Survey participants were asked to rank the following systems, technologies and engagements based upon their perceived value in enabling an organization to engage in the Collaborative Economy.
The full Brands and the Collaborative Economy report will be released in June, going in to further detail on the topics above, as well as:
- An overview of current pilot programs being conducted by the respondents;
- Key sources of information and data about the Collaborative Economy;
- An overview of missing or underdeveloped resources and services needed by organizations for their Collaborative Economy initiatives.
Wave 2 Research begins June 1st.
Wave 2 research will begin the week of June 1st, and will cover:
- Lessons learned from early successes and failures
- Organizational resources needed to develop and sustain pilot programs
- Development of a simple framework for Collaborative Economy pilot programs
If you are interested in participating in the research (via survey), being interviewed or profiled for the report, or sponsoring a future report, please send me an note.
Private Briefings & Advisory Sessions
I am also doing a limited number of private briefings on the Collaborative Economy research and how a modern approach to online communities can support innovation, customer acquisition and retention.
I’m available for online session booking via Popexpert, or feel free to drop me a note.
You’ve probably been hearing a lot about the Collaborative Economy lately. The key question many brands are asking: How do I get started?
The good news? You may already have. Most organizations have an existing online customer community (or communties). Most are as simple as technical support forums, but many organizations have explored community engagement that touch most parts of their businesses, from product, to marketing, even recruiting and talent development. Organizations as diverse as Lego, Autodesk, Patagonia, Starbucks, BMW and GE have all shown leadership in this area. Like the previously mentioned organizations, if you have been engaged in building the social business muscle in your organization, you have been building a solid foundation for engagement in the Collaborative Economy.
Big Challenges / Early Days
If you consider the evolution required for most organizations to embrace the Collaborative Economy, the task can seem overwhelming and the path perilous. Unfreezing corporate assets, opening up IP portfolios, bringing customers in to every stage of product development, even bringing customers inside the organization for extended periods – these are all huge issues to wrestle with, there is no doubt. But just like customer voices drove the social media revolution and customer’s preferences drove the customer experience and mobile revolutions, customer choice with experiences like AirBNB, Uber, Kickstarter and taskrabbit will increasingly fuel demand for radical change in products and experiences from established organizations.
So again we are back to the question: How do I get started? To borrow a phrase from one of my favorite professors in my Sustainable Development program: “Start where you are, do what you can.” It is important to note that we are in the early days of this revolution, and as such, there are few hard and fast rules. Being crisp on business goals and measures of success, while being open to unexpected learnings and sources of value are all key. Specifically, my guidance is to start with your Community and Social Business programs and extend from there.
Places to Start
The list below is meant to give a few examples to start your own internal conversations about the Collaborative Economy – feedback and ideas are welcome in the comments.
1. Explore “Community” with a capital “C”
Move beyond break-fix support forums, and explore ways to engage your customers in product design, product development, content creation and local meetups. The state of online community development has been stalled in recent years by a fixation on customer acquisition via social media. The opportunity is ripe to invest in building your on-domain community and crowd-engagement experiences.
Autodesk’s Fusion 360 Community
2. Open Products,IP, and Assets
Is there an opportunity to open up some, or all, of your product or IP assets to encourage co-creation with your customers or spur market development? These could be in the form Digital Assets (design files, specs, branding, instructions), Product Assets (Digital or physical kits, tooling, specs) or other
Telsa Opens Patents
Toyota Opens Fuel Cell Patents
3. Open Space:
Organizations generally have a large physical footprint. Many have experimented with opening up unused office space for rent or as on-demand meeting or co-working space. Other companies have tapped their unused manufacturing or production capacity. Retailers are beginning to bring in outside brands and individual makers to sell wares in their retail spaces. Some of the most innovative or actually creating labs and makerspaces and inviting the public in to co-create.
Office Space Yield Management
Maker’s Row helps match factories with designers
Shop’s at Target (First version of this failed, expect to see more)
GE’s FirstBuild MakerSpace
Autodesk Artist in Residence
4. Share Digital Platforms
Just as many organizations have underutilized physical space, they also have underutilized digital capacity & platforms. What are the possible initiatives for opening up your existing platforms and sharing other forms of digital capacity and data?
Amazon opens store on Alibaba (example of one retailer opening to competitor)
Can I trust you really? The Reputation Currency
Why Online Reputation Needs to be Portable
5. Allow Access to Talent
One of the most interesting and largely unexplored areas of opportunity is the talent & cognitive surplus present in most organizations. What if that talent and expertise could be could be made available outside the organization? There are a number of challenges here, including an equitable vs exploitative approach, but the results of unleashing creatives and knowledge workers to explore problems beyond their “corporate” boundaries could be amazing. What if you could buy 2 hours of an Apple product designer’s time? Or get feedback from engineer at Boeing on product idea? Or hire a staff writer from Hallmark to write your Mother’s Day Card?
6. Open Access to the Community & Crowd
I mentioned the opportunity to create “Community with a Capital C” earlier in the post. One key challenge with any brand community, no matter how engaging or interesting the brand might be, is that it will likely only be relevant to a specific dimension of a customer’s work or life. Not understanding and accepting this simple fact has been the demise of many online community strategies. To get full value and engagement from online communities in the Collaborative Economy, brands are going to have to get more… well, collaborative. Radically so. Partnering with, and engaging independent communities, existing partners, and increasingly, competitors will be key. One example I would point to is the ongoing series of events that Hackster.io (a community for hardware hackers) is putting on with support from a range of incubators, hardware and software companies. All parties involved are prioritizing community engagement above competitive differences – as a result, everyone wins.
Hackster.io Hardware Weekend
7. Explore Incubation & Innovation
There are essentially three approaches here: 1) Outpost: Open an innovation or research center in a market hotspot like silicon valley; 2) Scout: Send Innovation scouts out into key markets to identify trends, find partners and start pilots or 3) Incubate: Create labs or workshops inside existing corporate locations. All serve similar approaches as they try to equalize the innovation equilibrium inside and outside the corporate membrane.
Ford Silicon Valley Research Center
Swisscom Open Innovation
Autodesk’s Pier 9 Workshop
Net: Brands have an amazing opportunity for growth and value-creation in the Collaborative Economy. Those with existing social business and innovation programs are well positioned to navigate the transformation and be the early market leaders. Expect innovative brands to do a lot of experimentation in 2015.
File under: slightly off topic but personally meaningful.
Disclosure: I’m not a massive U2 fan. With that said, Achtung Baby is one of my all time favorite albums. It is a transformative recording from a band that had, to date, been cast as a folksy and righteous rock and roll band from Ireland. Achtung Baby is a product of the band intentionally losing its established identity, giving themselves time and room to explore (albeit contentiously), and birthing an almost unclassifiable masterpiece and subsequent co-opting of mass, and particularly, electronic media as part of the album experience.
In 2011, From the Sky Down was released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the album. The film takes the band members back to Berlin to talk about the creative process of recording Achtung Baby, and in the act of creation, remaking the band.
One of the most insightful moments in the film is at the end, when Bono sums up the intention behind the Berlin sessions and the album. It is at once terrifying and inspirational:
“You have to reject one expression of the band, first, before you get to the next expression,” says Bono, “and in between you have nothing, you have to risk it all“
I LOVE this. Applied personally, it is a call to action to grow, explore and transform. Faith in your instincts, talents and abilities bridge the gap between what you are and what you can become, and help hedge the risk.
It occurs to me that most organizations are in a similar state today – business models, culture, internal structure – basically most everything needs some level of transformation to thrive in the new increasingly connected and empowered market that is emerging globally.
How many will have the will to reject the “current expression” of the org?
How many will invest in the work needed for exploration and transformation?
Most importantly – how many will find the will and purpose to risk it all?
We will find out in the very near future.
ps: I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Berlin in 2011. I have to admit that I was not looking forward to the trip, but I wound up falling in love with the city and its energy- including the vibrant startup scene. I posted some of my pics from the trip here: