Monday, 19 April 2010

The four community types

The term "Community" is one we hear often in the KM world, usually with little qualification. However there is more than one type of community, and problems start to arise when management models for one type are misapplied to another type. Here are the four types.

Communities of practice are the KM standard. A community of practice is, as you might expect, a community of practitioners; practitioners within a single area or discipline of practice. They may be a community of geologists, of lawyers, of gardeners, of chefs. Their conversation is about practice, and the purpose of the community is primarily to help each other to improve their practice, by using the tacit knowledge of the community as a shared resource. The community do not deliver anything collectively to a host company; all products they create are for the benefit of the community members. Communities of practice generally are voluntary, and often have little or no funding from the host company.

Communities of purpose are different. Here the community is funded by a company or by a host organisation, and in return, commit to deliverables. They have a performance contract, a budget, and agreed KPIs. This sort of community will have an identified set of members, rather than being totally voluntary. They will have joint objectives. They act often as a virtual team. Their conversation is about practice, so they are a different from a multi-discipline team, but they behave in many ways like a team.

Communities of interest are different again. These consist of people who are interested in a particular topic (such as a fan club for a particular pop star, or supporters of a rugby team), but they are not practitioners. Their purpose is to receive and share information, but this information doesn't help them in their work as practitioners. Membership is entirely voluntary.

Social communities are communities of friends. Their purpose is not to share information or knowledge - their purpose is creating and strengthening social bonds. Membership is voluntary, but is often requested and invited. People are invited into social networks, though the invitation can come through membership in communities of interest.

Where community strategies go wrong, is when members of one type of community are treated as if they are members of another type of community.

For example, we have seen one organisation give deliverables to the community, despite the voluntary nature of the community. They have treated them as a community of purpose, though they are a community of practice. The community members did not sign up for delivering products to the company, and rapidly lost enthusiasm.

We have seen another organisation treat a community of interest as a community of practice, trying to engage them in conversation and exchange of knowledge, when all they were interested in was receiving information.

We have seen a third company treat a community of practice as a social community, trying to involve them in the creation of social and friendship bonds, when all they really wanted was access to knowledge.

Community is a wide term, and before introducing any sort of community strategy to your company or organisation, it is worth getting very clear about what sort of community you are dealing with. (Also please note - these communities can be nested within one topic area)


David Phipps said...

I would be interested to know if you would use different social media strategies or tools to support these different communities or if the same tools can be used for all these types of communities, albeit for different end goals.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great content Nick. Do you have archetypes for members within each of those communities?
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Nick Milton said...

David - sorry, I thought I had answered this, but the answer didn't appear!

I would not use the same tools. A social community can use purely social tools, such as facebook. On the other end of the scale, a community of purpose will collaborate on shared products, and needs a collaboration suite.

The main tools for a community of practice are the discussion forum and the wiki, while the main tools for the community of interest are the blog, the distribution list, and the portal.

Nick Milton said...

Andrew, the question of archetypes is very interesting. I have not done this work, and to be honest, have recently found such a strong overlay of national culture on community styles that I worry that archetypes would not cross national boundaries. I could be wrong though.

Ian said...

Just came across this post.
I like the categorization, it's very helpful. The only problem I have is that I think sometimes in practice things aren't as clear cut.
for example while I don't think you can force communities of practice to become social communities, they often seem to work better when there are also stronger social bonds between the members.

Nick Milton said...

I completely agree Ian,

a) real life is fuzzy, and
b) social bonds can help the other communities.

However the other communities are not solely social, they are about delivery, about practice, or about a specific interest.

In my Facebook circle, for example, i have a group of people who are just friends, and we chat about social things. I have a group of people with a common interest in jive dancing. I have a group of people with a common practice - knowledge management. I have friends in all three groups, but one group is just friends.

It's how you manage and structure the groups that differs.

Also, communities of practice are often so large that they far transcend the boubnds of a social network. CoPs in Shell, for example, are sometimes >2000 members. You can't be friends with 2000 people, but you can use each other as a knowledge resource.

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