The C3/A3 Project
C3: Community, Crowd, Collaboration
A3: AI, Agents and Automation
Humans instinctively seek meaning, connection and resources through community. Driven by near ubiquitous access to broadband and the rapid adoption of smartphones, our new and ever-expanding digital world offers instant access to a rich tapestry of social experiences, fundamentally changing the way we seek, find and participate in community.
Currently, individuals and organizations are struggling to adapt to our evolving digital world, particularly the social technologies we use to connect and communicate with each other. Complex human networks are springing up on and across myriad social media, social network and topic-based communities, forming community ecosystems that transcend technological, geographical and organizational boundaries.
Looking forward, it seems things are about to get even more complicated. A new set of technologies is emerging to augment human cognition (AI), enhance human agency (Agents) and shape digital experiences and outcomes by taking advantage of a rich set of tools and APIs (Automation). We see these three technological forces (AI, Agents and Automation) as the next immediate wave of disruption in digital experience, and we see Community, Crowd and Collaboration as the social contexts in which technology and humanity will interact for the betterment (or detriment) of humankind.
The C3/A3 Project Overview
Our hypothesis is that this combination of social technologies with human augmentation technologies will usher in a new age of digital community experiences. These new experiences will present unprecedented opportunities and challenges for organizations and individuals, and complex policy issues for society. The C3/A3 project will explore the technological, business and societal implications of this next wave of change and offer a helpful path forward.
- Technology: The current and emerging technology landscape
- Business: Corporate strategy, competence, needs and level of readiness
- Individuals: Customer (a.k.a. Community member) needs, expectations and likely challenges
Key Components of the Project:
- Community Executive survey – February 26th
- Technology landscape analysis
- Community platforms
- AI technologies ( ex: Watson, Einstein)
- Agent interfaces (ex: Cortana, Alexa, Obindo)
- Automation platforms
- Executive interviews with select technology providers, early adopters and startups
- Mass practitioner survey
- Customer (Community End-user) survey
Reports and Mastermind
The output of the project will be a series of reports throughout 2018 that publish key findings. An executive mastermind group for brands and select startups will be formed to deeply explore relevant topics.
The first wave of research launches on Monday, February 26th with an invitation-based survey to Executives who own community and social media experiences for their respective companies. Detailed results will be shared privately amongst this group, and summary data will be shared publicly.
If you would like to participate in the research survey and subsequent Mastermind discussion, please send me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reminder: This phase of the research is open to Executives at large organizations (5000+). No agencies or consultancies please.
I was honored to be asked to keynote the SWARM Community Managers Conference in Sydney this week, hosted by conference Co-Founders Alison Michalk and Venessa Paech. The conference featured a range of topics and an impressive group of expert practitioners sharing their views on Community building.
My keynote focused on the need for a modern approach to community building in response to the accelerating change and disruption driven by exponential technologies. I’ve summarized the talk below and included the full deck at the bottom of the post.
Exponential Technologies and the Missing Human Dimension
Exponential Technologies are defined as technologies that are on a growth curve of power and speed are doubling annually, or the cost is dropping in half annually. Further, these technologies interact in a combinatorial way to create disruptive change and opportunity. Futurists Frank Diana and Gerd Leonhard do an amazing job of unpacking this concept on this recent podcast.
Online Communities are poised to have a break through moment if we, as community builders, can blaze the trail.
There are several trends converging to support this approach:
- Many organizations are experiencing a social media hangover and are actively exploring the possibilities of hosting their networks and communities;
- Research is showing that network-building and platform building activities are a path for organizations towards resilience and growth;
- We know online communities can generate significant and varied forms of value, and that connected customers are typically more valuable.
A New Approach to Community Building
A new and comprehensive approach to online communities can create a path forward through the change being driven by exponential technologies. The key factors, as I see them:
- Leadership that prioritizes learning over labor;
- Community experiences that are powered by purpose;
- A move beyond destinations to community ecosystems;
- Community presence across contextual interfaces;
1. Shifting Leadership Mindsets
To create the environment for Communities to be successful, leaders within organizations have to shift from a primary focus on Scalable Efficiency (Fixed Mindset) to a focus on Scalable Learning (Growth Mindset). Scalable efficiency is all about defined roles, repeatable processes and limited experimentation. This works well in a static environment but works poorly in a dynamic one. A focus on experimentation, learning and evolution creates the opportunity to adapt to changing conditions and shifts the role of community from one of cost-savings to one of value-creation.
2. Purpose-powered Communities
As Community Builders, we’ve always known that we needed to define a community’s purpose as part of strategic development, but we generally haven’t paid much attention to the role of purpose for community participants. Further, an emerging body of research (including my own primary research) has shown that helping community members discover, refine and actualize their purpose can create truly extraordinary outcomes and high levels of engagement.
3. Developing Community Ecosystems
Developing a community ecosystem, to date, has typically involved bolting on a handful of social channels to a hosted community strategy. A number of new opportunities have emerged to explore in-person experiences, community partnerships and mastermind-style engagements (to name a few).
4. Interfaces into Community
Perhaps one of the most interesting opportunities is to think about the expression of your community across a range of interfaces. In-product experiences are going to be particularly valuable. As an example, Aatif Awan, VP of Growth at LinkedIn stated that “Product integrations with Microsoft are the biggest growth opportunity” for LinkedIn.
Community Builders as Architects of the Exponential Experience
Full slide deck here:
Image © Leigh Prather
The last few years have seen big brands make extraordinary investments in developing massive “digital transformation” and social media programs. On one hand, these programs have yielded moments of customer connection, advocacy and insight. Unfortunately, for the majority of programs reliant on mass social platforms like facebook and twitter, organic reach has dropped effectively to 0 and companies are now forced to pay to engage sporadically with the “audiences” they worked so hard to build. Companies now realize they have been renting their customer communities on social platforms.
The alternative to social media campaigns and digital transformation theatrics? Developing Customer communities. Specifically, online Customer communities that companies build, host and manage. Customer communities hold the key to Customer acquisition, retention and growth. Further, communities can be a catalyst for development and innovation, and will be critical to future business models. Below I explore the opportunity for Customer community in three key Corporate areas: Brand, Product and Strategy.
Community is the Fabric of Brand
What is the nature and value of brand in a hyper-connected world? A recent HBR article asserts that the collective value of Customer relationships is outstripping the value of “brand. The authors of the article nail the point that Customer relationships are incredibly valuable, but may have missed an opportunity to explore the effect of the customer community as a brand asset & catalyst — the line between brand and relationship isn’t as crisp as the authors imply. Further, I would assert that the “network” of relationships represented by the collective customer base of a company is a manifestation of brand, every bit as important and as valuable as the components of brand identity. My primary research and experience has shown connected customers (via community and social) are more valuable than those that aren’t. Third party research by Deloitte has shown that Networked companies (“Network Operators”) perform better, live longer, and are more valuable. All of these points are are vectoring towards a new opportunity and a new frontier in business: Community-Centric Customer Experience — an approach to customer experience design and business strategy that not only strengthens the Company to Customer relationship (1:1), but also strengthens and develops the Customer to Customers & Company relationship (1:Many, a.k.a. the “Community”). and considers development of the Community the primary .
Communities Will Infuse Product
Customer communities are an essential part of most technology products now. At the very least, online support forums are expected as part of the offering (more on that in a bit). Many companies are experimenting with customer communities as a means to raise product awareness, convert trial customers and retain existing customers. A radical new business opportunity is emerging where the community (both the people and the platform) are the actual product. Purchases are artifacts or a gateway into the community experience, and the real “product” is the collective experience, knowledge, content and means of collaboration with the community. There are many early examples in the gaming world, from MMOG’s like World of Warcraft to the new “build and explore” virtual worlds like Roblox. Software companies are attempting to build communities that address the “whole customer”, and focus on experiences well outside of product support. Adobe (Behance), Autodesk (Instructables, Fusion360, AREA), Intuit (OWN It) and Sephora (Beauty Talk) are actively investing in the community space.
Opening the Aperture on Strategy
There is an unfortunate tendency to view Customer communities as “cost saving” vs “value producing”. This thinking leads to strategies and outcomes that fail to realize the full value of customer communities, and is rooted in a long standing dependence by some companies on customer support communities. In extreme examples, this sort of strategy breeds resentment with valuable customers and leads to a dangerous dependence on an unsustainable resource. When the Corporate mindset shifts to “value producing”, the aperture of community strategy widens to a rich set of possibilities: community advocacy programs, open innovation, peer to peer mentoring, complex content sharing, customer co-design and much more.
Moving forward, Customer communities will be the medium by which value is co-created and exchanged between Companies and customers. To have any chance of long term success with Customer communities, mindsets have to evolve beyond a fixation on cost savings to a more enlightened view of communities as a valuable catalyst for innovation and growth.
The Bottom Line:
Customer communities are the “fabric of brand”, the medium in which the network of customer & company relationships develops and thrives. Companies that create modern communities with their customers will be more innovative, realize more value and have more resilient businesses than their competitors who don’t.
The concept of engaging “the Crowd” through digital platforms has been around for some time. Howard Rheingold coined the term “Smart Mob” in 2002 to describe the phenomenon of people acting in concert “because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities”. The concept was carried forward in 2005 by the editors of Wired to coin the term “Crowdsourcing” (crowd + outsourcing) to describe production with the a digitally connected marketplace. In the 15 years since the concept of Crowdsourcing was introduced, we have seen a wide range of crowd-based business models emerge: Wikipedia (collective knowledge), Lego Ideas (design your own kit), Kickstarter (crowd funding), Local Motors (crowdsourced vehicles), and Dell’s Ideastorm (the original social suggestion box).
With the wide range of crowdsourcing experimentation, we’ve also seen the limits of what the current platforms and practices can produce, and it isn’t pretty. Consider:
- On average, less than 30% of Crowdfunding campaigns reach their goals. On some platforms it can be closer to 10%.
- Quirky, once the darling of crowdsourced consumer goods, filed for bankruptcy in 2015.
- Dell, an early pioneer in crowdsourcing, has been able to implement only 2% of the ideas submitted on IdeaStorm.
- Independent crowdsourcing research, including a recent study by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, discovered that social influence can cause “herding towards a relatively arbitrary position.”
What are the key challenges?
The most common limiting factors to Crowdsourcing initiatives are one, or a combination, of the following:
- Engaging the right crowd: Perhaps the most critical challenge in crowdsourcing is finding, and then engaging, the members of the crowd with the knowledge, skill and motivation to participate. Without domain knowledge and skill crowdsourcing produces only low quality results. Without motivation, you have unrealized potential.
- Creating an iterative development process: One of the early corporate adopters of crowdsourcing, Dell’s Ideastorm, learned early on that creating an experience that solicits ideas without giving the community the ability to refine and evolve the ideas is a waste of time. After collecting over 10,000 ideas in the first 2 years of IdeaStorm, Dell was left with 9,750 that couldn’t be implemented, causing frustration for the company and their crowd. By introducing multi-staged challenges dubbed “Storm Sessions”, Dell was able to source and develop products with their crowd, most notably Project Sputnik, the first Linux-based laptop for developers.
- Developing short and long-term feedback loops: The process and infrastructure required to support short-term feedback loops is difficult and labor intensive, requiring personal interactions and manual data management. Longer term feedback loops that include market data are currently next to impossible.
- Creating intelligence from crowd data: The amount of data a typical crowdsourcing initiative produces is overwhelming, and managing this data to create knowledge and insight, even moreso. Consider the amount of manual processing and scoring overhead associated with the 25,000+ ideas in the previously mentioned Dell IdeaStorm example.
How A New Take on Collective Intelligence Can Help
Collective Intelligence, a disciplined approach to the “wisdom of the crowd”, is defined as the “science of scaling insight from multiple knowledgeable perspectives and experiences into predictions”. We’ve traditionally thought of “The Crowd” as exclusively human, but what if we expanded the collective “we” to include the rapidly evolving domain of Artificial Intelligence? The combination of expert communities and artificial intelligence is the core of a new approach to Collective Intelligence being developed by a new startup named CrowdSmart. Specifically, CrowdSmart technology creates a means to predict startup success factors by engaging an expert community of investors to score and provide critical feedback to early stage startups. Investors save time on research and improve the quality of their deal flow, and Startups get critical and timely feedback to help increase their odds for successful outcomes.
What is uniquely valuable about the CrowdSmart approach is leveraging Artificial Intelligence to detect the statistically significant ranked comments behind any given score. These ranked comments are the “drivers” that produce a specific score. The qualitative “wisdom of the crowd” becomes quantitative intelligence that grows in value over time.
According to Tom Kehler, Chief Data Scientist at CrowdSmart, “Collective Intelligence significantly outperforms individual expert intelligence at predicting the success of a new products, services and startups.” If Tom is correct, the application of Collective Intelligence will have far-reaching effects on the future of Crowdsourcing, paving the way for a more disciplined approach and more successful outcomes.
Disclosure: CrowdSmart is a Structure3C client.
Bastian Unterberg is the founder and CEO of Jovoto, a Berlin-based platform that enables global brands and enterprise businesses to solve design and innovation challenges – ranging from new product design to sustainable architecture – with a community of over 60,000 creative professionals. In 2013, Wiley published Bastian’s book, “Crowdstorm – The Future of Innovation, Ideas and Problem Solving”. Crowdstorm delves deep into the methodology Jovoto uses, and is an insightful read for anyone working with creative communities and crowdsourcing initiatives.
I met Bastian at Crowdsourcing Week 2015 in Brussels and was impressed with Jovoto on multiple fronts: the quality of brands that were sponsoring projects (Starbucks, Adidas, Coke), the commitment by Jovoto to engage and compensate their community, and the way that Jovoto encourages the community of creatives to lead crowdstorm projects – including solution selection and distribution of award funds.
This interview is the culmination of ongoing conversations I’ve had with Bastian since meeting him last fall in Brussels.
Q: What motivated you to start jovoto?
BU: “Towards the end of my studies at the University of Arts in Berlin I was asking myself “What’s next, how do I want to work?” Looking at various verticals across creative industries, I realized that most work environments available to me did not match my DNA and understanding about how I want to work. So much amazing talent leaves university to face a world that simply does not nurture them or help them reach their full creative potential.
Hierarchy, politics, poor feedback culture – these are some of the factors in traditional creative work environments that suppress rather than nurture creativity. And this is something that I wanted to change for myself, for my graduating classmates, and for others around the world who were looking to break free from the traditional agency model.”
Q: The concept of community is core to jovoto’s business. Can you talk about the type of people who make up the community and what motivates them to participate?
BU: “We know that by embracing the concept of community, the majority of our creatives prefer to work on jovoto rather than elsewhere. To my knowledge, there are no other open innovation platforms that listens, supports, and nurtures their community to the extent that we do.
The jovoto community consists of creatives from all over the world who value their freedom to work from wherever they are, whenever they want and with whom they find interesting. They are highly independent and rely on feedback to develop and improve. They are open to collaboration and are not afraid of working with others when they see they lack certain skills to make their ideas as good as possible. They don’t rely on one skill but are rather interdisciplinary and great problem solvers in general.
What motivates them? Our community is motivated to participate on jovoto by many factors, but what might come surprising to many, is that earning money isn’t at the top of the list for most of them. For some it is the chance to work with great global brands on interesting tasks, for others it is the learning they get through collaboration and feedback, and then of course there are always those motivated by prize money.”
Q: There is an unusually high level of collaboration amongst community members. How did you go about building a strong community culture that values quality and contribution?
BU: “Open innovation naturally attracts a certain type of creative who are more likely to engage in collaboration in a different way. To nurture this even more, we reward certain behaviours that creates the culture which we want. Creatives who collaborate with and give great feedback to others, have opportunities to win special awards. We also have a team of creative guides who know the client and the community who also give feedback on ideas, as well as support and encourage the creatives. All of this contributes to the unique and supportive culture within our community.”
Q: Why is social impact important to you? Can you describe some of the global projects jovoto has hosted that have made a positive impact in the world?
BU: “One of the things you can observe on jovoto, is how creativity and mass-collaboration is an powerful tool to affect positive change.
I’m pretty proud of our track record in hosting important projects that will help make the world a better place. From the $300 House challenge, crowdstorming low-cost irrigation solutions for farmers in India, and the universal logo for human rights.
Last year, our most successful campaign was with Greenpeace, to put come up with campaign material to help put pressure on McDonald’s to stop their use of GM feed in poultry. The campaign was a success; McDonald’s in Germany announced in 2015 that they would stop using GM!
Corruption is another issue on the top of everyone’s list right now with the recent news about the Panama Papers. One of the ways we are engaging in the global fight to end corruption is by collaborating with Transparency International, and supporting the work that they do by helping to spread the word against grand corruption.
One of the reasons crowdstorming works in all of these cases, is that not only do projects promoting positive-impact projects tend to have a high engagement rate on the jovoto platform, but creatives participating also tend to spread the word off the platform, gaining even more visibility for important projects. It is a win-win-win situation for everyone. The creatives participating who can contribute their time and creativity to important projects, the organizations we work with who get great ideas, and for social and environmental impact.”
Q: You’ve said that you want to grow jovoto to the point that creatives could actually make a living solely from the platform. How close are you to achieving this vision and what will it take?
BU: “We aren’t far off, actually. Just this month, our top-earner took home €11,000 EUR (over $12,000 USD).
As more and more young people are looking to alternative forms of work, and more and more global business are looking to the future and to open innovation, the chances happening are already helping establish this new reality.
For jovoto, it is about supporting the best talent working on our platform, to reach new levels of greatness. We give creatives the chance to grow and learn and reward outstanding creative work. If you’re really good on jovoto, you can climb the creative ladder, with more invites to even more projects, some with guaranteed payment for participation. The more great clients we have, the more opportunities we can provide to creatives, and the securities we can offer scale.”
Q: What is your advice for those seeking to pursue a path of self employment through platforms like jovoto?
BU: “The first step is simply to participate! Submit ideas, give others feedback, and find other creatives to collaborate with.
The creatives that succeed on jovoto are usually creatives that give and listen to feedback, are genuinely helpful and supportive and engage with others. It’s an open innovation process so the more open you are, the more successful you are.”
Jovoto is a client of Structure3C.
Open Innovation Communities – where companies and customers collaborate on ideas for new products and services – can be one of the most valuable ways to invest in community engagement. Unfortunately, this type of community is also one of the most difficult to get right. Many companies have experimented with this type of Open Innovation – Lego Ideas, Dell’s IdeaStorm, Starbucks’ My Starbucks Idea – and each of these companies have seen value from the communities. The bad news is that most companies fail because they lack the vision and commitment to see beyond the initial tactic of soliciting customer ideas.
In my community practice, I’ve seen 4 stages that are typical in the maturation of an Open Innovation Community.
- The Social Suggestion Box – Launch an open space for customers to give feedback or make suggestions
- Overwhelming Backlog – Period where the company can no longer process the backlog and may abandon the community
- Managed Sprints – Develop a strategy to shape feedback and ideas by introducing a more formal process and constraining topics & time
- Collaborative Innovation – A significant evolution of programs and platforms that layer ongoing ideation into all design and decision making
The Four Stages of Open Innovation Communities
Stage 1. The Social Suggestion Box
Most companies start their Open Innovation Community with an open-ended call for ideas and feedback. Community members are welcome to submit any idea, and the broader community (hopefully) comments on the idea and rates the idea using a simple scale or upvote. Community managers take the most highly rated ideas to the product team for discussion, and eventually some ideas are chosen for production.
The Social Suggestion Box phase is valuable in the short term, as customers will likely have suggestions they have been holding on to since they began their relationship with the company – essentially a communal backlog, if you will. Companies become stuck in this phase when they are unable to process the backlog of ideas, manage the growing community and deliver quality ideas to internal teams (typically product) in a format and within a timeline that aligns with product roadmaps. This break between the promise of a constant stream of new ideas, and the lack of a process and the ability to shape ideas into a usable format is the key challenge.
Stage 2. Overwhelming Backlog
The equivalent of the “trough of disillusionment” from the Gartner Hype Cycle, companies in the Overwhelming Backlog phase can often find themselves with a large pile of unread ideas, a community platform in need of a serious overhaul, an innovation program that no one really values and a community in revolt.
This situation may sound extreme, but it was exactly the one I walked in to when I joined Dell in 2010. IdeaStorm, Dell’s Open Innovation Community, had launched in 2007. After enjoying 2 years of valuable idea contributions, positive PR and internal support, year 3 found IdeaStorm as a “ghost ship” community, with no leadership, vision or community management. Things became so bad that a community member posted the idea that Dell should shut IdeaStorm down. The community quickly upvoted that idea, it caught the attention of Michael Dell and my team was given the task of “making it better, fast”. I eventually hired the community member who posted the “take it down” idea to become the new community manager for IdeaStorm.
To navigate out of the mess we were in, the team immediately began research to inform our new strategy. I wanted to know the financial impact of IdeaStorm to date, understand why ideas weren’t being responded to, and to understand what the barriers were in getting ideas from the Community into the the product teams at Dell. We found that the financial impact from IdeaStorm was really high ($100s of Millions), that we lacked an agreed upon internal process for scoring and prioritizing ideas, and that we needed to create a new type of community management role to help facilitate the new process – an Idea partner that lived on the product team. The final piece of the puzzle was implementing an archiving policy for ideas that didn’t score well in the community. Within a few months we had processed the ideas backlog, started design on a new platform (with the community), and had reengaged most internal product teams.
Stage 3. Managed Sprints
Companies come out of the Overwhelming Backlog phase with the key insight that shaping the topic, type and form of ideas they would like to receive is critical to realizing value and long term success. Many companies will implement a sprint-like approach to ideation, using phased ideation and design sessions to focus on a single topic or product.
This approach involves developing a clear business or design problem, and then breaking solution development in to smaller ideation projects that are facilitated, in sequence, over a number of weeks. The output of each sub-project helps shape the proceeding sub-project. Ideas and design concepts are generally of higher quality because the problem definition is clear, product teams participate, and community members get real-time feedback from the product team.
Dell did this successfully on IdeaStorm with Project Sputnik, co-creating a Linux-based laptop with and for developers. Other examples of the Managed Sprint stage include Unilever and General Mills. Jovoto (client), an “On Demand Creative Community”, has on of the best Managed Sprint approaches I have seen – you can find more information on their site, and in the book their CEO Bastian Unterberg coauthored, “Crowdstorm“.
Stage 4. Collaborative Innovation
In many ways, moving through Stages 1-3 are a necessary process for companies to undertake in order to develop the strategy, process, alignment, platforms and business models to move beyond what are essentially sporadic innovation campaigns.
Collaborative Innovation is an ideal state where an organization and its community of customer, partners and employees are engaged in an ongoing process to perfect existing products & services and to bring new products and services to market. We’ve talked for years about the boundaries between companies and customers disappearing – in the Collaborative Innovation stage, the boundary is permeable – customers create new products & services with the companies assets, and receive value in return (use, compensation, reputation, etc.).
There are examples of large companies partially engaged in the Collaborative Innovation stage, but none that have extended this to every part of their business.
Some examples include:
- IP Sharing: Tesla & Mozilla opening their patents
- Product Co-Development: Lego Ideas, Firstbuild
- Pretailing: Kickstarter, Barnraiser (client), CrowdSupply
- Customer Lab: Autodesk’s Pier 9, Firstbuild’s Microfactory
- XIR (X in Residence): Autodesk’s Artist in Residence, MAKE’s Maker in Residence
Opportunity While Other Stall
The truth is, most companies never make it beyond stage 2, “Overwhelming Backlog”. Dell, an early pioneer in the space (and my former employer) has been regressing back from Stage 3 for a few years (unfortunately). The other notable pioneer, Starbucks, has optimized My Starbucks Idea to be a very well run & designed Stage 1 community. While Communities at each stage offers some dimension of value, companies progressing through to Stages 3 & 4 will discover the most value and innovation.
The potential opportunity for the next wave of Open Innovation Communities is incredible. Why?
- Customers have shown they are willing to collaborate & create
- Customers are willing to buy products still in the conceptual phase (millions of examples of crowdfunding)
- The tools to create & share complex designs are free and relatively easy to use – see Fusion 360 & OnShape
- Innovation platform companies have an opportunity to move beyond text / pictures / video into immersive & real-time 2d & 3d collaboration. PS – Platform companies – I would LOVE to work on this and have a ton of ideas.
Many companies could realize tremendous value from Open Innovation Communities. Most don’t because they don’t experiment, or do a poor job of planning their initiatives. Companies that commit, support and evolve their Communities see value. Beyond the current practice examples of Open Innovation Communities, the next wave will feature immersive and real-time design as a key feature. Those who wish to innovate need to be evolving their platform, programs and internal process now.
I’m offering a session on Jolt that expands on the concepts in this post, and goes in to more strategic detail about how to build the best Open Innovation Community for your business. Feel free to book a session and chat with me about tailoring to your organization’s needs.
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, email@example.com.