Back in the day, when tribes were really tribes, the most critical need within a community was survival. Separating from the group introduced risk. Staying close improved your chances. In some ways, little has changed. These conditions seem strangely familiar.
No wonder an emotional connection often exists among the people and places of our local communities.
Borrowing from the anthropology books, the community of practice (“CoP”) concept emerged. It was coined by Lave & Wenger in the early 1990’s to reflect the tendency for professional groups to form based on common interests, independent of local boundaries. With a gradual introduction of work group and email technology, geographic constraints diminished. Knowledge Management (KM) brought recognition that groups in remote places could collaborate.
Today, social media dramatically improves on that capability, serving to amplify, accelerate, and even multi-thread interactions. But there’s a need to strike a balance between capability and usability. For a virtual community to survive, some key ingredients are required:
- A common, stated purpose (affinity).
- An aligned culture that values participation, cognitive diversity and discovery.
- Strong, cohesive relationships, built via engagement, trust and mutual respect.
- Support from authoritative external leaders (if applicable), and (at least) rudimentary governance.
- Awareness of diverse contexts (recognizing differences across functional silos, or along social vs. commercial, or local vs. global dimensions). This implies an ability to manage your mental filters.
- Semantic clarity.
- Strong connection (or access), providing intuitive ways for members to interact.
Virtual communities cut across traditional geographic, social and political boundaries; membership in many groups is possible. This allows cultures to mix. With increased interdependence comes new complexity. So it’s a mistake to believe virtual communities work just like the local ones. In the physical world, we had nonverbal cues; getting our bearings involved our ‘line of sight’. Now, we must rely on our ‘line of thinking’. And that can change quickly.
If a traditional community gives us a social context and a sense of place, a virtual community gives us optional contexts, diverse ways to view a problem and its solutions.
It’s more capability, with a price .. it takes more rigor to drive it.
Social media is just a platform, the next set of tools. The hard work of change remains. Is our culture more aligned with a race to the future? Or is our desire for stability prompting us (even subconsciously) to cling to the past?
I’m an optimist, but many take the latter perspective. For the ultimate answer, I’m holding on to the complexity view: the optimal solution is likely someplace in the middle.