In a virtual world, what do we mean by “Community”?

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:

  1. A common, stated purpose (affinity).
  2. An aligned culture that values participation, cognitive diversity and discovery.
  3. Strong, cohesive relationships, built via engagement, trust and mutual respect.
  4. Support from authoritative external leaders (if applicable), and (at least) rudimentary governance.
  5. 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.
  6. Semantic clarity.
  7. 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.

Advertisements

The Problem with “Social” in Social Media (the case for ‘New Media’ and the semantics of 2.0)

The other day, I had an epiphany.

In one window, I’d been watching a series of tweets on how State CIO’s put collaborative tools at the bottom of their 2010 technology priority list, even though their top 3 strategic goals included better management of labor costs, workforce optimization, sharing of work .. in a nutshell: productivity.

In another window, I’d watched die hard SMCHAT members bemoan the boss who wouldn’t let them communicate via blogs, for fear they were wasting time. Forget the great ideas and potential innovations that were emerging.

Finally, the last straw: several high ranking execs were talking strategy, and one of them referred to the corporate adoption of SM, aka Enterprise 2.0 (#E20), as “Facebook behind the firewall.”

That’s when I snapped, so to speak.

From here out, I’m calling it facebook syndrome. You may know someone who has it too. It assumes social media is just about planning parties and swapping pictures, and it definitely doesn’t help with management buy-in.  In fact, there are two working definitions of social. One connotes entertainment, and another, the one we’re talking about for Government 2.0 (#GOV20) and E2.0 and any serious commercial application is about building new work groups; facilitating new engagement for problem-solving; driving better partnerships; enabling culture change; and, quite literally, unlocking innovation.

Let’s change the game. Let’s rally around a new name .. like “new media” perhaps? .. for commercial applications. And to sell it, let’s demonstrate a basis for measuring actual productivity gains, showcasing the people working closely together on shared problems that only recently had never met.

Watch people get excited about coming to work again.

It’s not social media that we’re chasing. It’s the networked learning organization. To get beyond images of wedding crashers, the solution language needs to reflect the mission.

Unraveling Complexity (the Missing Link): A new approach for solving problems in Social Ecosystems

For months I’ve been reaching out to colleagues to explore barriers to collaboration, a key tool in the social innovator’s toolbox. Among those queried (and in spite of diverse backgrounds), virtually all had experienced significant barriers to collaboration over the years including silo-thinking, dated and inefficient problem solving models, cultures of control, and a strong, prevailing lack of trust.

Consensus? The barriers to innovation seem to be as universal as they are frustrating.

So something is broken. What is the root cause?

Beth Noveck and David Johnson have published important research on how new Social Media collaboration technologies can change the game. Their perspective on a New Science of Complexity is summarized in this People & Place blog post and explained further in an excerpt from their research. Their focus was the U.S. EPA (including the Federal process for environmental research and legislation) but their conclusion, which I agree with strongly, is that the principles are applicable in business (#e20) and broader social venues (#gov20) as well.

My primary takeaway?  I now believe that INNOVATION IN COMPLEX ECOSYSTEMS will depend on an improved collaboration process – a new middle ground for problem solving – that balances large-scale central organizational approach with grass-roots contributions by individuals. It is about finding the “sweet spot” between rigid structure and adaptive, organic sourcing of ideas. In a new and somewhat uncharted public collaboration space, it means that the forces of organizational scale and leverage can be networked – connected – with discrete centers (or hubs) for contribution to produce more rigorous solutions.

At the core of this thinking? A realization that traditional large-scale organizations (with their central thinking, hierarchical layers, and silos of functional experts) are generally ineffective when dealing with complex situations. Quite literally, they are too rigid. Without the ability to adapt to new variables or to coordinate across silos, grid-lock ensues. And complex social ecosystems are impacted, since “sending in experts” is how we tend to attack these issues. On the list? The well known structural challenges in energy, sustainable food and water sources, public education and healthcare.

What’s needed is an outright paradigm shift in problem solving models that are fundamentally more interactive and cross-functional. And focusing on complexity theory is key, because it begins to unlock some new doors. For one, there must be an organic aspect that allows solution teams to learn, self-correct and grow. And to meet the requirement of connecting people more dynamically, Social Media is the ideal technology. Some examples? Think about experts engaged in live chat. Acceleration of thought synergies. Tools to merge and re-mix knowledge. Ability to leverage and extend dynamic repositories.

With focus and coordination, we can work to find the elusive “sweet spot”.

In terms of naming and framing the problem, the above research makes significant strides. The next step is critical as well, and is just as exciting: in pockets across the internet, the new collaboration is already starting to appear.

Are you seeing it too? Let’s talk, I’ll show you where and how.

Organization Change: the ‘Organic’ POV

In times of dramatic change and crisis, executives (perhaps in line with human nature) revert to known formulas .. tapping structured, controlled and seemingly “safe “solutions. In Stephen Billing’s blog “Organizational Change is Not a Relay Race” he warns against relying on formal & rigid decision processes in times of crisis. Most dangerous: hand-offs between executives, consultants and HR .. passing the baton of responsibility from runner to runner.

We’ve all seen this happen. If you’re leading an organization in crisis, it is no time for hand-offs. It introduces delay, dilutes both message content and ‘signal strength’ .. and in the end, serves to diminish trust. But to really get at the core of the disconnect, we need to understand how change works.

I frame the issue as two contrasting views: the organization as machine vs. the organization as living organism.

In the latter view, change brings in an organic element. Transformations take place in every cell.  Granted, there are communication and control processes present in the organism too; each cell plays a vital role, as in a machine.  But in a living organism, just as within an organization, success (survival and adaptation) depend on symbiotic adjustments from every minute part of the system.

No doubt the industrial age has influenced the thinking of executive management.  But we must now choose our relational paradigms more carefully, especially at times of crisis when time is short and emotions are running high.

Machines excel at repetition. Living organisms excel at change.

Take a good look, there’s plenty of change and crisis to go around.  What kind of organization do you need to be?

DoD Query: Web2.0 Integration aka the Portability Gap

Wouldn’t it be great if Social Media tools could talk to each other, and share basic profile information about you, your interests and your network?

The Federal Goverment (DoD) is working on that very question, and has requested public input (DoD Guidance Forum).

In spite of XML, which was invented to facilitate software talking to software, it remains a complex problem.  Many vendors are in the mix (eg., Twitter, Google, Facebook, Linked-In) and social media culture tends to say ‘no’ to standards and control.  Where can we draw useful boundaries on Web 2.0 integration issues, and how do we make our profile and social network information “portable”?

Here’s what I’m thinking.  These comments and a few more are now cross posted as DoD’s blog comments:

WEB 2.0 DEFINITION. Connecting people and content in more intuitive ways through adoption of social technologies; this drives enhanced user experience and interaction capabilities, with benefits that include: (a.) expanded user personalization, choice, and content filtering, (b.) propagation of rich, more intuitive multi-media, (c.) facilitation of all aspects of community building and interaction, and (d.) empowerment of local contribution on a global scale.

PORTABILITY is a significant gap in today’s Web2.0/SM space. The need is for a common, single-source entry with multi-vendor re-use for personalization data (profile data about the user and their preferences) as well as social network data (who the users is connected to, and importantly, why, defined by tags).  The gap is the ability and willingness of stakeholders — including vendors, users, developers, large stakeholder coalitions (eg., government) — to organize around a minimal, practical set of common guidelines. I believe an open source consortium for Web2.0/SM Data (Personal & Social Network) Portability Guidelines is needed. A ‘meeting in the middle’ to achieve a shared approach for ‘top down’ and ‘bottom-up’ data exchange would be ideal. The faster this gets done, the more quickly portability gets solved, which will lead to accelerated adoption of Web 2.0/SM.

WEB 2.0 IMPACT ON BUSINESS PROCESS (“Enterprise 2.0”). Social media and Web 2.0 are ultimately about connecting people and content in more intuitive ways, so the business processes impacted are those involving human interaction and content messaging. Examples:

  1. Collaborative Research.
  2. Customer Service (1:1 PR).
  3. Software Development.
  4. Marketing & Media Communication (1:n PR).
  5. Collaborative Solutions (Knowledge Management). [enhances capability/value of 1-4 above]
  6. HR Talent Acquisition & Supplier Sourcing.

AUTHORITATIVE REFERENCE. “Wikinomics” by Don Tapscott (2006).

What needs to happen to make this work?

“For adoption in business, government or academic organizations, Web2.0/SM requires cultures of trust & empowerment, with team environments that encourage knowledge sharing and collaboration.”

Feel free to comment, here or on the DoD site, as the spirit moves you.  These are key issues.  I’d like to know what you’re thinking.

Chris (@SourcePOV)

Why KM Struggles: Fighting a Culture of Control

CARY, NC USA.   The practice of KM (or “Knowledge Management“) has had it’s struggles, enduring many years of growing pains.  The grand prize – product and process innovation – is alluring, so KM teams have worked diligently to leverage intuitive, web-based tools and frameworks that can drive expanded use of corporate knowledge stores.   Behind the scenes, vendors have been busy too, because KM (and it’s close cousin, “Enterprise Search“) have been the best hope for social media tool developers to get a foot-hold in the lucrative commercial space. 

But lasting engagement and results are often elusive.  Why is this so?

In many important ways, KM is culturally at odds with the prevailing management mindset in corporate America. 

For the last 100 years or so, the fundamental paradigm in business has been been built around control, with administration by authoritative, hierarchical management.  Goals and policies come down from the top, and the mission is routinely around maximizing hard economic profit, often to the detriment of other goals.  In spite of efforts to maintain a portfolio of goals, the drive for quarterly earnings can often trump all else.  In fact, reducing cost of production and cost of defects has been the hallmark of industrial management, and it all comes down to standardization.  In this world, innovation is often relegated to R&D (it’s own “speciality”), if it’s funded at all.  It’s a mindset that externalizes improvement, if not discouraging change outright.

In today’s economy, the long-term effect of these trends is more apparent than ever.

KM embraces innovation, and sees change as important.  It seeks to open doors and encourage collaboration across organizational boundaries.  It is designed to weave innovation into the fabric of every team and every process.  With KM teams and practices in play, problem solving leans away from the structured organization of functional specialists, in favor of empowering individual contributors, who form fluid, cross-functional teams that are often better suited to solve complex problems.  The locus of energy shifts to knowledge workers, who can best positioned to see, understand, articulate, and guide their teams to achieve better, more innovative solutions.

In a business culture predicated on control, it’s small wonder that KM has been facing lots of closed doors.

KM is at it’s best when knowledge workers receive the tools and training they need to generate insight and act on it.   Gearing-up for KM is lots of work, but it’s the foundation for success of a knowledge enabled company in a marketplace that is beginning to reward players that are savvy about how to leverage knowledge and colloboration to innovate. 

To unlock KM’s potential within an enterprise, then, it seems the only productive path is to knock on the doors of culture change within the organization.  Is executive management open for change?  Better still, are they demanding it?  Do they see the value of cross-functional teams?  Are they willing to help break down the political barriers that are natural artifacts of hierarchical management structures?

Or is the status quo going to have to suffice? 

If you start hearing about limited money for KM, you have your answer, at least for the short-term.

Knowledge Management can work.  In fact, to compete in our new knowledge economy, it’s critical.  But we need to start with culture issues, and fix those first.  The journey is long, but there are no shortcuts.

You have to begin at the beginning.