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.
“…people’s identification of, and intention to pursue, particular highly valued, overarching life goals.” (Steger & Dik, 2010).
a.k.a. “Your reason for getting up in the morning.”
Bryan Dik PhD – Professor of Psychology at Colorado State & Cofounder of Jobzology
The Fine Line Between Engagement & Manipulation
Growthhacking, gamification, content snacks and personalization. Your feed is overflowing with tricks, hacks and best practices to “drive engagement”. The best of these techniques tap into a member’s intrinsic motivation to trigger participation, the worst rely on psychological tricks and negative emotional responses.
What if there was a way to create sustained engagement in communities and collaborative experiences that harnessed genuine motivation and strove for positive outcomes for participants? Through my work as a Fellow with Life Reimagined, I have (with my team of Fellows) developed an approach that taps into the power of purpose to drive community engagement.
As Community Architects (and Builders, Managers, Hosts, etc), 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. Tactical goals in the context of a community experience, yes. Thinking about the community member as a “whole person” with a life beyond your community? Let’s be honest – rarely.
Our community experiences today are largely designed around the limitations of the platform we choose to grow our communities on. Content (posts and messages) is typically the most dynamic element, followed by algorithmically-driven “streams”. Reputation elements develop over time and are helpful to make judgements about the value of content and contributors, but it is hard to say any given community experience truly evolves. On the whole, the Community experiences are surprisingly static.
There is opportunity for improvement here. Looking at Communities through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you can make a case that online communities support many of the needs that Abraham Maslow describes in his model, especially 1.) Belonging (through social connections), and 2.) Esteem (through participation and the advancement through reputation system). The missing ingredient has been the proverbial top of the pyramid: Self-Actualization.
What might happen if the community and collaborative experiences we designed supported the discovery, refinement and actualization of a person’s purpose?
Next, think about what a community might look like if the host organization was actively refining and expressing its purpose through community interactions. As an example: If a software company’s purpose is to empower the world through digital design software, you could imagine community activities going well beyond break/ fix support forums and into eduction, skills mentoring and specific efforts to reach people in the developing world and the associated technological challenges. The host organization evolves from an authoritarian role to become a responsive partner in co-development.
Early Development of the Purpose Model – In Flight Now
In November of 2015, I was honored to be chosen as part of the inaugural Rand Fellows with the Life Reimagined Institute. I was asked to be team leader and had the opportunity to work with Bryan Dik, Brooke Erol and Roberta Taylor on my team. Our team was mentored by an amazing group of thought leaders, including Richard Leider, Alan Weber (co-founder of Fast Company) and Dr. Janet Taylor. The goal of my team was to create community-based programs that help people discover, refine and express their purpose. My team of fellows is in the middle of a pilot and research project that lasts through the end of July to study the best ways to help our community of participants discover, refine and express purpose through their work. Our team took the Life Reimagined process (shown in the graphic below) and mapped community activities to each stage to come up with the needed content and features for our pilot community program.
Meaningful Results Beyond Engagement
One of the most incredible outcomes of our pilot program was that we saw significant improvement in 12 of 20 psychosocial variables that we measured in our participants. Specifically, we saw large gains in feelings of Happiness, Resilience, Presence of Meaning, and Career Decision Self-Efficacy. We also saw reductions in feelings of Loneliness and Depression in participants.
We are in the early days of developing a model for Purpose-Driven Communities but we are already seeing impactful results from our studies. The Purpose-based model I’ve described doesn’t exist in the wild (yet), but the time to consider the implications and possibilities is now if you want your organization’s community to evolve beyond static growth, low engagement and specious results & impact . There are many positive and disruptive implications of the model – I’ve highlighted a few below.
- Shared Purpose of Community
- Hosts will have to clearly state the purpose of their community, as well as help individual community members define, refine and express their purpose in the community experience. The development of a “Purpose Model” is required.
- Purpose Expressed in Community Leadership and Actions (Member)
- Once the “Purpose Model” is created, more effective Member journeys, reputation and roles can be developed that align near term activities with longer-term accomplishments.
- Evolving Role of Community Manager
- Once the language of Purpose is understood in a community, and once members and hosts can share their purpose (via statements / profile), the Community Manager can play a critical role of connecting members with the content, people and activities they need to actualize the member’s purpose.
- A New System of Context & Feedback Loops (Platform)
- New tools will need to be developed to facilitate purpose discovery, and to drive the community experience through context (activity streams, member matching & networking, journey models) and feedback loops (based on activity).
- Federated Communities
- The expression of an individual’s purpose is a large and complex topic. It is unlikely that any one community or organization can fully support the breadth of an individual’s need. Complimentary communities have an opportunity to partner around customer types and segments to offer experiences that support purpose. We will begin to see examples of Federated Communities as an alternative to mass social networks in the next 12-24. Powering these Community Federations with Purpose will be a game changer.
Creating a Purpose-driven model for communities will be a break through in performance, engagement and impact for many organizations. This new model will create the canvas for life-long relationships that are based on mutually beneficial outcomes for the host and member. Community platforms, programs and roles will need to evolve to realize the full value of the model.
I will continue to research and write about the Purpose-driven Community Model as part of my ongoing #NetworkThinking series. To stay up to date, subscribe to my newsletter here.
I’m currently working a select list of clients to build amazing communities. If you would like to schedule some time to talk about how I can help, email@example.com.