Friday, December 5, 2008

Communicating, Collaborating, Innovating

Building Virtual Communities that Thrive

I’ve been tracking virtual communities for a long time now for many reasons including the potential they offer to performer support. I’ve wanted to understand why some communities flourish, others falter, and so many fail. Here’s what I have found

Virtual communities thrive when:
  • Members of that community have compelling needs and wants that the community can satisfy.
  • There is a technology infrastructure in place that facilitates the satisfaction of those needs and wants.
  • The community is unbounded and self regulating.

Virtual communities falter and eventually fail when

  • Needs and/or wants are ignored in the design of a virtual community.
  • The technology infrastructure requires too much effort to connect and accomplish those needs and/or wants (as they evolve.)
  • The community is hampered by over-regulation.
With this said, here are three fundamental principles for designing a virtual community:
  1. Satisfy compelling needs and wants
  2. Make it easy
  3. Set realistic parameters for self-regulation
Satisfy Compelling Needs and Wants
Needs are tied to survival. Wants are tied to aspirations. Both are vital; they are interconnected. For example, people generally feel a need to perform successfully in their work. Their survival in the workplace generally requires that. But this need is only compelling to them to the degree that fundamental intrinsic drivers (wants) are adequately addressed.

In the Wednesday, November 5, 2008 blog entry (The Role of Engagement in Performer Support), I described the five fundamental drivers of engagement (1. Connecting, 2. Learning, 3. Envisioning, 4. Earning, and 5. Contributing.) Based on a worldwide survey of 90,000 workers in 18 countries, only one in five employees (21 percent) is engaged in the work and willing to go the extra mile to help their companies succeed. (Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study, 2007)

The 21 percent who are fully engaged are prime initial candidates for communities of practice. They are driven by the need to perform successfully. They are motivated sufficiently to plow through the difficulties to achieve what they set out to do. The remaining 79% will become part of a virtual community to the degree that their specific levels of engagement “wants” are satisfied by that community.

We recently held a virtual meeting with 100 leaders of a major pharmaceutical company to discuss these five drivers of engagement. During the meeting we asked these leaders to indicate on a scale of 1 to 7 their current engagement level in each of these five areas. This exercise revealed that the area of envisioning was extremely important to these leaders but that there was a fundamental disconnect with the top leadership. And with economic times being what they are, there was great passion in their comments. This reality suggests that “envisioning” would be a “compelling” candidate for an ongoing virtual community focused upon unifying the company’s short-term and long-term vision and aligning it with the personal visions of not only the corporate leadership but down through the organization.

Bob and I were privileged to participate in a rapid benchmarking discussion following Learning 2008 with members of our performance support community. It was hosted by Jan-Jan Lam at Disney. One of the fundamental points coming out of that discussion was that in the early stages of transitioning to virtual communities, organizations need to tie those communities to compelling initiatives. The second recommendation was that the virtual communities that were succeeding were doing so because there were groups within their organization who were separated but had a compelling need to associate and communicate. Both recommendations support fundamental needs and wants.

Any organization wishing to tap the strategic power of virtual communities to achieve greater communication, collaboration, and innovation must understand that the survival and business impact of virtual communities is determined by the degree individual and collective wants and needs are met. And wants and needs are fueled by these drivers of engagement.

Make it Easy
It isn’t enough to offer a solution to a community that only satisfy’s their compelling needs or wants. Although this is absolutely vital, human nature dictates that solutions must also be “easy” for virtual communities to survive and ultimately flourish. Easy includes:
  • Focused in functionality
  • Immediate
  • Adaptive
  • Intuitive over time
  • Proactive
  • Multi-channeled
Focused in Functionality
A generic virtual community environment that doesn’t take into consideration the core functional needs of the community that wishes to gather will always have a tough go. I’m not suggesting that the community avoid generic “community of practice” capabilities. But especially in the early stages of VC adoption, participants need to find the table set specifically for their core functional needs.

For example, I designed a virtual community for high school aged students who were competing academically as teams at regional, state, and national levels. We knew that there were critical functional needs that would rapidly entice these students from high schools into this community and would also encourage the help and support of teachers and school administrators. These functional offerings were beyond what the students could get in any other way without great effort – effort that would be difficult to sustain.

It is this kind of focused functionality we need to provide to jumpstart and then keep alive virtual communities that will ultimately thrive.

This guideline is a “no brainer” isn’t it? Yet, in practice virtual communities often require too many steps to get to the doing part of communicating, collaborating, and innovating. The more doorways you can create into the virtual community the better. These doorways need to be as close to a single step as possible.

Although a virtual community should generally be preloaded with core functionality that addresses fundamental “needs and wants,” community members also need the capacity to add functionality and adapt the way they work together online. They also need to be able to turn off functionality they don’t want and alter the ways they communicate and collaborate with others.

Intuitive Over time
I’m not suggesting that the first steps into a virtual community need to be brainless. Obviously, there is learning and adjusting that needs to take place anytime people take on a new way of working together. But the journey to competency needs to be as short as possible. It’s helpful to piggy-back on known functionality where possible. Just know that the honeymoon is very short when it comes to virtual communities. The more intuitive the journey the better.

Most public virtual communities have learned how to be proactive in facilitating community building. This is smart business. Today I stepped into my Facebook account to find that I have five friends who have common friends that I might like to know as well. This capacity for a system to monitor and match common patterns and make recommendations because of them, can be very helpful in keeping virtual communities moving forward.

If the objective of virtual communities includes collaboration and innovation, then the outcomes of that work needs to be readily transformed into useful forms and pushed out of the immediate community environment into other environments where that work can deliver value. This is where content management practices and associated tools can provide great value. It is within a virtual community where content can not only be created, but also enriched with metadata, added to, verified, challenged, validated, and pushed to wherever it is needed in the form it is needed, when it is needed. The potential for this in our world of performance support is significant.

Set Realistic Parameters for Self-Regulation
Wikipedia has clearly demonstrated that virtual communities can self-regulate in a global collaboration effort on a scale that is unprecedented. If they can do it – and they did - then others can do it as well. In their words, here is what they have accomplished so far:
“Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world; anyone can edit it. Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference Web sites, attracting at least 684 million visitors yearly by 2008. There are more than 75,000 active contributors working on more than 10,000,000 articles in more than 260 languages. As of today, there are 2,646,657 articles in English. Every day, hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world collectively make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to augment the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia.” ( )

The Wikipedia model merits study and emulation. Ground rules were set; processes put in place. Here is the link to their policies and guidelines. Take some time and study them. It provides a profound lesson on how to set realistic parameters for self regulation. ( )

Where to From Here?
I’ve been listening to some remarkable insights regarding communities of practice. As you have some time, consider listening to the following. I found them insightful. I believe you will too.

Charles Leadbeater: The rise of the amateur professional

About this talk
In this deceptively casual talk, Charles Leadbeater weaves a tight argument that innovation isn't just for professionals anymore. Passionate amateurs, using new tools, are creating products and paradigms that companies can't.

About Charles Leadbeater
A researcher at the London think tank Demos, Charles Leadbeater was early to notice the rise of "amateur innovation" -- great ideas from outside the traditional walls, from people who suddenly… Full bio and more links

Howard Rheingold: Way-new collaboration

About this talk
Howard Rheingold talks about the coming world of collaboration, participatory media and collective action -- and how Wikipedia is really an outgrowth of our natural human instinct to work as a group.

About Howard Rheingold
Writer, artist and designer, theorist and community builder, Howard Rheingold is one of the driving minds behind our net-enabled, open, collaborative life. Full bio and more links

Clay Shirky: Institutions vs. collaboration

About this talk
In this prescient 2005 talk, Clay Shirky shows how
closed groups and companies will give way to looser networks where small
contributors have big roles and fluid cooperation replaces rigid

About Clay Shirky
Shirky, a prescient voice on the Internet’s
effects, argues that emerging technologies enabling loose collaboration will
change the way our society works. Full
bio and more links

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