Monday 3 September 2012

Sites don't make communities - communities make sites

I am going to reprise this post from 2009, because a) only 5 people read it at the time, and b) it's something we keep seeing, in many organisations.

We ran a KM Assessment in 2008 with the KM lead for an organisation. At one point we were talking with one of their KM team, who proudly announced "we have lots of communities of practice". When we pressed her a little more to find out what she meant by this term, we found that for her, a Community of Practice is a SharePoint site with a list of contributors, a blog, and a wiki. Then when we went online to look at these "communities", the vast majority were entirely empty. Quite silent. No activity at all.

It takes far more than technology to build a Community. The key is in the word Community. Community is a feeling - it is a feeling of having something in common. It is a feeling of trust and of loyalty. Communities of practice deliver value in organisations because they set up structures of dual loyalty. A community member is loyal to their work team, but also loyal to their community, and this loyalty and trust is what enables the communities to be a conduit of knowledge between one work team and another.

Providing a set of community tools and expecting community behaviours to emerge is a variant of the "Build it and they will come" argument. It's like building a village hall in sectarian Northern Ireland, and expecting a multi-sect community to develop.  They key is to build the community first, often through hard work and much face-to-face interaction,  and let them build the hall. Or the website/blog/wiki/whatever.  The community builds their own site.

Provide lots of sites, and you just end up with empty sites. Provide a sense of community, and the site will be built.


Geoff Walker said...

Great article...I wrote an article for a journal entitled 'If You Build It They Will Surely Come?' back in 1999. Obviously, it used the metaphor of 'Field of Dreams' but I emphasised that driving a community to a website was no good the community had to be involved in the 'barn-raising'!

Lisandro Gaertner said...

Sometimes inside an organization we have lost of communities, but they are not the "organization's communities" because of trust issues. If these "illegal" communities are rewarding the participants although they don't feed the organization's knowledge bases, they shouldn't exist? They surely should, but a lot of people trying to control knowledge and not manage it don't believe the same way I do and worsen the trust issues that stop communities from growing.

Nick Milton said...

What do you mean by "trust issues" Lisandro? And in what way are the communities adding value to the participants?

Janette Young said...

Some really good points here. Lots of people talk community of practice when they are not COPs but other forms of network communities. Trust builds up over time and is the heart of good relationships formed in communities! Relationships build social capital the ‘value added’!

Lisandro Gaertner said...

Trust issues? An example: driven by organization caused anxiety employees don't know who they can trust and, when they trust someone, they are not confortable to share their experiences and practices in the open. Why that happens? Too hierarchical and slow organizations give people the impression they are not heard but spied upon. When people form these underground CoPs they exchange ideas and best practices that enable than to work better, besides the company's semi-immutable hierarquical driven policies and procedures. What value are gaining from these CoPs? They are hacking work. Have you read the book about it? Lots of great advice on KM guerrilla.

Nick Milton said...

Thanks Lisandro, I understand what you mean. Bottom up communities can be a very valuable way to start if (and until) the organisational buy-in is missing, but even then, it is not the site that creates the community, it is the shared passion of the members. I agree with this guy that guerilla KM can be a good way to gain attention when you are not in charge

Lisandro Gaertner said...

Amen to that.

Dan Ranta said...

I once visited a company -- a really, really large company -- that proudly said they had over 50,000 communities. I almost fell out of my chair. Later they reluctantly said that their number 1 initiative was to go back and get rid of as many communities as they could -- over 90 percent were dormant sites with no activity. Sad but true. To do a community right the business needs to get lots of "skin in the game" and that means it costs quite a bit, in resources in particular. We use a pressure valve or escape valve mechanism we call a "workgroup" to keep the number of communities to a minimum. If you don't really need or qualify for a full blown community, we talk you down off the ledge and give you a workgroup. Dr. Wilmot on our team came up with this splendid idea about 6 years ago. The workgroups nest underneath the "boundarless" communities.

Nick - great topic that takes years of experience in this area to really understand all the issues, benefits, nuances, etc.

Nick Milton said...

Thanks Dan! Great input.

I spoke with another company last week, and the central group has a filter for CoPs, and if a group doesn't pass the filter, they say to them "Hey, go ahead! Just don't call yourself a CoP (you're a workgroup, or a chatgroup) and we're afraid we can't support you from the centre, but best of luck"

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