Developing Communities

Communities are formed by persons – even if they represent organisations. So if you want to support a community in its development, you have to focus on the needs of the actual people involved. This is for me one of the eye openers of the webinar Digital Habitats of Communities with Nancy White, organised by En nu online on 21 February 2012.

So what are those communities that we spoke about? A community is formed by a group of people with a common interest, value or goal, that build a joint identity. The community provides a sense of belonging and meaning, that is valuable to the members and that makes them want to contribute to the community itself as well.

Nancy White: 3 perspectives on a community

Nancy White: 3 perspectives on a community

According to Nancy White, there are 3 types of stakeholders in relation to a community: the members, the leadership and the sponsors. The sponsors are for instance the organisations that are represented in the community by certain members. While a community should focus on its members and on offering value to them, it should definitely also pay attention to the needs of the organisations behind these members.

Balancing the needs of these stakeholders and of the community itself as a whole needs a clear view on what the community is actually about – what is the reason it exists, and what is its focus at a certain moment in time? What activities can suit that focus and what tools can be used to facilitate the work of the community?

Through their research into communities and their development, White, Wenger and Smith developed the so-called spidergram. The spidergram shows 9 possible orientations of a community at a certain point in time. The spidergram is not a static “test” that you take only once and that provides a roadmap for all time. As a community develops it may shift its orientation. Another important thing to note about the spidergram is that no community scores high on all orientations at the same time, not even a very well-developed one. In that sense, the spidergram does not provide an ideal direction.

So what then does the spidergram show? It basically shows you where the community is at, at this moment. What is the current focus of the community? This in turn can help you define the activities that will deliver the most value to the community and the most suitable tools to facilitate these activities.

Example of a Spidergram filled out

Example of a Spidergram filled out

These are the questions the spidergram can help you ask:

1. Are meetings important instruments for the community to discuss and decide on common viewpoints and steps to be taken?

2. Is the community focused on developing and implementing projects – sets of tasks that are related to each other and lead within a certain time frame to certain, defined and projected output and results? Mind you, a project does not need to be an externally financed official project, internal development of a new practice can also be considered a project.

3. Does the community reach out to expertise? This expertise can be available within the community, and be accessible for instance through an internal resource directory.

4. Is there space within the community to discuss “whatever it is that we need to talk about right now”? In spidergram terms, are there open-ended conversations? Interestingly, this orientation can be strong both in new and in mature communities!

5. Is the community working on producing common content? Like developing documents together, sharing information, capturing lessons learned. Content and projects rather often form a strong starting point of communities as the activities tend to bring people together for a very clear common purpose, that can inspire them to develop into a real community.

These 5 orientations focus on activities of a community. The 4 orientations below  focus on the relations within the community and the relations the community has with the outside world.

6. Is there space for members of the community to each have their own experience – is there space for individual participation? Even though togetherness is a crucial feature of a functioning community, every individual involved will have his or her own experience from this being together, will get out something different than the others. This could also be interesting for the others – to hear a different perspective of what was gained.

7. Is there some level of cultivation of the community? Is someone taking care of the togetherness? Is someone ensuring that new members get to know the others and get to know the community? Are things that need to be shared in fact shared?

8. What is the external focus of the community, the context? Is the community engaging with the outside world, or is it focused on its own goals and activities? There is no right or wrong in being either externally or internally oriented – some communities do not need to lobby with outside stakeholders to achieve their aims, while others could not reach their goals without strong ties to external parties. When scoring your spidergram be aware that an internal focus should be scored closer towards the bulls eye, whereas an external focus should be scored more towards the outside of the “circle”.

9. Are there different relationships within the community? Meaning, do people have one on one relations with other community members or are there small sub-groups of people that share also outside of the “official community channels”? Such relationships do not harm the community, provided of course they do not focus on nasty gossip about other community members, in fact they can help forge stronger ties within the community.

Each of these orientations can be supported by the community leadership or facilitators with different online and offline tools. In selecting and applying tools you should, however, keep in mind to bring value to both the members and their organisations.

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