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Community needs and goals

September 4, 2007

community-building-cover.jpgThanks to the reference at Confused, I am reading Amy Jo Kim’s book Community Building on the Web, first published way back in 2000. It is currently out of print, but you can purchase a PDF download from Peach Pit Press. It is an analysis of what makes on-line communities tick, and how to design them successfully. I like her perspective that an online community is a living, breathing, organic entity, not something that can be mandated or regulated very effectively. She is writing from the point of view of Internet communities, where this is expressly true. I just so happen to believe that this is equally true for intranet communities. Certainly, we have a lot more control over who signs on to an internal platform, and we can threaten much more significant consequences for members who misbehave. But it doesn’t take very much overly strict authoritarian mandating to regulate the life right out of these communities. Instead of a vibrant, rich, collaborative community, we can all too easily end up with an empty, stiff, formal ghostland of corporate-approved content.

I have just been reading a section titled “Needs and Goals: A Three Step Planning Exercise.” Kim outlines a very pragmatic approach to listing out members’ needs, listing out owners’ goals, prioritizing them and analyzing for overlaps, synergies and conflicts. And then publicizing the specific set of needs and goals you are trying to meet with a specific release of the community platform.

It is ironic and sad when people building communities miss this point. Too often, large companies who “get the message” about the opportunities for collaborative content creation run massive projects to implement extensive collaboration platforms for employees but don’t ever stop to think about what employees will actually use the platform for. Or they treat the entire employee base as one giant undifferentiated community.

Certainly there can be communities that grow to the size of a large employee base, but they almost always start small and grow organically. And along the way, they probably change their focus and direction.

“Broad brush” community building efforts that try and address a huge group’s needs all at once are at risk if specific community needs aren’t considered. What will motivate community members to use the platform, and how can adoption be driven within specific communities?

What if you implement a collaboration platform and no one shows up? Usually the failure will be chalked up to “immature technology,” “lack of a culture of collaboration,” or “it was just a bunch of internet hype anyway.” The truth is that cultivating communities is an art, and it requires considering the individual members and their needs and goals.

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Social Networks and the Monkeysphere

August 24, 2007

A few dots connected for me this morning. This time, the connections raised more questions than answers… but, hey, those are always the most interesting dots anyway, aren’t they?

I followed a link from SecondLifeInsider to an article in CNN about griefing, to a wikipedia article about Dunbar’s Number. Primatologists analyzing the size of social groups in primates noticed that the size of the troop is directly related to the size of the brain. They theorize that this limit represents the mazimum number of meaningful social connections that primate neurology can manage. Based on human neurology, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar extrapolated that for humans this limit is around 150.

That would suggest that an average human cannot maintain meaningful connections and relationships with more than 150 people, beyond that perimeter people stop being people and start being (at best) 2D stereotypes and eventually just statistics.

There is a hilarious (and totally irreverant) discussion of this topic Inside the Monkeysphere. “Inside” the 150-person limit we can create meaningful relationships. We’re fundamentally wired to treat people “outside” that limit dramatically differently.

Whether you agree with the science, or believe that 150 is the right number, it is conceptually sound that there is a limit to the number of rich social connections we can maintain.

Then when I read JP’s latest Facebook and the Enterprise post about online communities, it made me wonder about the relationship of the internet in general, and social networking tools like Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Bebo, etc, etc, and our limited neurological capacity for meaningful relationships.

Do these tools provide some sort of scaffolding that helps our constrained monkey brains manage a larger number of “real” relationships? Or do they just help us keep track of connections that have little or no substance? Or do they help us continually “upgrade” the 150 active connections we maintain so that they’re very high quality? Or just so that they are highly aligned with our own views?

How do we keep the noise of hundreds or thousands of facebook or linkedin “friends” from swamping the signal of the connections that really matter to us, that really add value?

I wonder what research has already been posted in this area?

Role of the manager in an agile enterprise

August 22, 2007

JP at Confused of Calcutta has been making an interesting and entertaining run of posts about Facebook and the Enterprise. The latest is focused on the idea of using a social networking platform like Facebook to inform a role-driven induction process for bringing new hires up to speed. The idea is that it would be much more interesting and useful to know what a previous player actually DID in the role (assuming, of course, that the previous player was performing well) than any sort of formal academic description of what the role SHOULD be doing.

This argument resonates strongly with me, although I’m not convinced Facebook is the right model. There are social networking tools that specialize in forensically evaluating email and chat patterns and other artifacts of interaction that are more in line with this idea of documenting what a leader actually does. Who they interact with. What meetings they attend. Etc.

But I didn’t want to post about that tonight. 🙂

I very strongly connect with the almost throwaway reference JP makes to Max De Pree’s definition of leadership, namely that

  • The first job of a leader is to articulate strategy and vision.
  • The second and last is to say thank you.
  • In between, a leader should be a servant and a debtor to the led.

It’s that third bullet that got my attention. Because I so wanted it to be elaborated on. Perhaps De Pree does exactly that in some of his work, will have to take a look.

My thinking on the subject is probably infected with too much exposure to Bionomics in the mid ’90’s, the idea of the economy (and the organization) as an ecosystem. The infection was exacerbated with some amazingly successful experience with eXtreme Programming later in the ’90’s, watching the incredible things that teams could get done, the almost synchronistic, catalyzed, emergent behavior that delivered outstanding results and created a fantastic work environment as a great side effect.

It used to be that the manager had to assign, monitor, and assure completion of specific tasks. The manager, in this “traditional” example, needed to be better in the execution domain than anyone else on the team.

The world that I was experiencing starting over a decade ago was an agile organization where the manager had a very different role:

  • Craft a mission for the team that made it a viable actor in the organizational ecosystem
  • Make sure to get “the right people on the bus” (in Good To Great speak)
  • Act as a park ranger or steward rather than a manager, making sure the processes in the team were staying in balance
  • Keep a weather eye on the rest of the organization to evaluate how the original mission was working and whether the ecosystem was changing
  • Keep the corporate entropy and chaos (and bureaucracy) from getting in the way of amazing results (kind of like how the ozone layer keeps harmful solar radiation from destroying life on earth)

I used to describe this as “carving out a space in which the team could ACT LIKE it worked for a rational company.”

I wonder how this relates to De Pree’s work.

And although the word Agile is tired these days, this leadership style is still at the heart of the extremely effective organizations we’re encountering every day.

Top Secret Knowledge Sharing

August 22, 2007

Who would have thought we’d be trying to catch up with the intelligence community in deploying social networking/web 2.0 platforms?

Financial Times is running an article describing the new online social computing platform that the US Director of National Intelligence is deploying to intelligence analysts across multiple departments and agencies.

It combines a social networking capability modelled on MySpace, a collaboration/wiki platform inspired by Wikipedia, and social bookmarking function that mimics Delicious.

It sounds like these are internal-only sites, although they are deployed to allow collaboration even between US and foreign government intelligence communities