We don’t mean to become invisible–do we?

Last time I talked about how important it is to make community visible by way of the shared story.  I was reflecting on the viability of an ‘invisible’ community.  Is it possible to have such a thing?  Has it ever been possible?   The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that “community” may possibly be a more universally understood construct than “family”.

By that I mean you can go anywhere and people will understand the essential characteristics of community.   Here is my paraphrase of the the Wikipedia definition:

Community—a more or less cohesive group with a common identity sustained by common intent, beliefs, resources, preferences, needs, risks, and any number of other conditions.

Family, on the other hand seems to be very open to interpretation.  Does it include blood relations only (or as legally augmented through adoptions and marriages)?  Just the atomic family of mother, father and children?   The Chinese 7-pocket family where you have one kid, two parents and four grandparents?  Is there a requirement for a blood relationship at all?  Any specific mix of gender identities?  In our modern world, we have patriarchal, matriarchal and anarchical family structures.  Families with one, two, three and more identified generations in close contact.  The variation is staggering.

But I digress.   It occurred to me that historically all sorts of communities were open, visible and transparent.  In more ‘primitive’ societies, not everyone has the wealth to own their respective homes and lands.  They may not have a place to store food beyond what’s being prepared for the next day or two.  They may not have electric or gas cooking ovens or private laundry facilities.  In these settings, the community shared in many activities—hunting for or gathering food, preparing food, caring for children.

There is little done that is hidden from view.  Most acts are public acts.  The fact that everyone was working together, playing together, living together contextualized the world.  Why would you twitter what everyone you knew could just see.  There was a common flow and everyone you knew or cared about was in the same flow with you.

I remember the funeral for my grandma Griess back in 1975.  It was in Sutton, Nebraska, a town of about 1800 for as long as I can remember.  We had moved away and lived in various cities and college towns in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Michigan.  I saw my grandparents for a week a year, at most, and had little interaction with their network. When we visited, we were busy with my extended family (my dad’s siblings and their children, my grandparents’ cousins and their descendents).

At the service, I remember commenting to my dad as I saw small children (5-10 years old, I guess) weeping at Grandma’s casket, “Dad, why are these little kids crying?  They can’t really know Grandma.”

He replied, “Oh, yes. They know her. They have all been to the house and been with their parents as they took Grandma and Grandpa shopping.”  They were clearly in the flow; I was not, clearly.

So what to make of all this as you try to make community work?  I think there are a couple of lessons.

  1. You need to get in the flow.   The flow is where the narrative is.  It’s where things are volunteered and also observed.
  2. Getting in the flow is easy when you’re all telling tales around the kneading stone or camp fire.  Or when the neighbors all gather at Cheers! It is much more difficult when we’re all in our own houses or places of business.
  3. In today’s social media, particularly of the business-oriented kind, it’s not good enough to be able to create a community space (note, a person can’t create a community, but they can create a space to foster community) or to be a member of a community.  You need to interact.
  4. So a practice I recommend is to consider the ways you can see what the flow is and find times where you roll up your pant legs and get off the shore.  Step into the flow and participate.  If you use email, let updates come to you, by all means, but also follow the links back into the shared space.
  5. If people are gathering in person and you can get there, get there.  If there’s a 3DI event with avatars, join in.

Some tools like Twitter and Facebook give you tools to be notified when your “friends” and “followers” do things.  I like the notion implemented in Newsgator Social Sites where you can subscribe to a daily digest to see the overall flow for everything you are interested in, in the end, the information in the flow should take you back in to the community space so you can add to the narrative, not just observe.

To make communities visible, means to share stories, not in some private, point-to-point way, but out in the open.  When I live out in the open, my stories can become our stories and the community can thrive.

Just because we don’t mean to be invisible, doesn’t mean we aren’t behaving like we are.  Encourage people to interact, to collaborate, to join the story and to be visible.

Is there such a thing as an invisible community?

It’s taken me a lot longer than I planned to put this post together.  I hope you find that it was worth the extra time for me to tie some things together.

It was a sunny late summer morning when I was having a bagel and coffee on the sidewalk outside Einstein Brothers in Westminster.  I was talking to Michael, a pastor and friend of mine at The Journey, about the “rule of 150” from chapter 5 in The Tipping Point (Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2000). We were trying to get a handle on the reality of that rule and what, if anything, it means in the dynamics of a church.

The underlying question seemed to be about making sense of the organizational ebb and flow of the community.  It seemed that any time we saw significant “new blood” there was a corresponding loss of “old blood”.  The church, has plateaued with regular attendance in the core service right around 150.  The church has met in rented rooms at the local community college for the past 8 or so years.  The capacity of the main meeting room is about 180.  During peak vacation weeks, it’s closer to 120 and on the big family holiday Sundays, it’s more like 170.

Michael and I have both read the literature on church growth and we are familiar with the typical organizational plateaus that happen at certain thresholds.  We understand the types of mitigation that many churches have taken over the time (add staff, get larger space, institute additional meeting times, initiate a building campaign, etc.).  We’ve seen very artificial  techniques used to leap past tough gaps (150, 300, 600, 1000 are all biggies).

The Journey has always tried to be more of an organic community.  It’s never advertised in the papers, knocked doors in the neighborhood, etc.  It’s always been about people connecting with each other, reinforcing one another spiritually and together reaching out to those in need — both within and beyond the community.  As people were touched in one way or another, sometimes they would choose to join in and the church would see growth.

By now you may be asking “what’s all this got do to with collaboration”?  Well, I’ll tell you.  If you consider that a church with a stated mission run by committed, self-selecting individuals can have trouble sustaining community, how much more difficult is it in the business world where the emotional attachments may not be as great.

In my years as a management consultant in the Knowledge Management and Collaboration space (nearly a decade now), we have often talked about the fact that it’s not the explicit (written down) information that needs the most help. The real knowledge management problem is in finding the tacit information, the stuff that’s bound up in the experiences of people.  The challenge has always been in trying to connect seekers with “knowers” and building up social capital.  Cohen and Prusak said:

“Social capital consists of the stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual understanding, and shared values and behaviors that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible.” Cohen, Don, and Prusak Laurence. In Good Company. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001.

They recognized the inherent challenge of making visible the invisible.  If you could find enough people who cared enough about the same issues, you could have a community.  People with shared values, a strong sense of reciprocity, and trust would be able to help navigate the unseen.  Ideally, the community becomes somewhat organic in that the community knows stuff.  The community knows more than any of the members and all are enriched by it.

What I told Michael is you need to find a way to make incidents of community more visible.  It’s not enough to say “we are community” and “we need community” and “isn’t community great.”  The very notion of community breaks out of the 3 hours per week you rent the college space.  To the extent the stories of community are invisible and tacit and unknown, the fabric of community is threadbear.

I think that’s one of Gladwell’s points on the number of connections humans need to keep track of (p. 178-9) “if you belong to a group of twenty people, however, there are now 190 two-way relationships to keep track of: 19 involving yourself and 171 involving the rest of the group.”  So the more the community acts outside of vision of each other, the more difficult it is to make the tacit explicit.  The community’s actions are invisible.  No one person can know what everyone else does.  Eventually the cost of communicating to everyone who ought to know drains the energy and the organism will seek a more sustainable size, say 150. That was the gist of our discussion.

Since that discussion, I’ve had the pleasure of reading Tribes (Godin, Seth. Tribes. New York: Portfolio, 2008).  Until that read, I had no idea that my thoughts had been so eloquently written.  Let me sum up my thoughts for this entry with a brief quote from Godin p138:

“People don’t believe what you tell them.
They rarely believe what you show them.
They often believe what their friends tell them.
They always believe what they tell themselves.
What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves.  Stories about the future and about change.”

What are you doing to make your community visible?  Can the invisible community collaborate?  Please, tell me what you think.

Real world vs. Online hierarchy and generation differences

Sheila poses a couple of interesting questions in her comment

  1. Does Social Computing remove hierarchy structures in face to face communications?
  2. Is there evidence that shows Gen Y is more adept at social computing than their older Gen X and Boomer colleagues?

On hierarchies—

I haven’t seen any research on this exact topic, but I have had some thoughts about how social computing can have a beneficial impact on flattening hierarchical structures.  I think you need to look more closely at the nature of each environment to make a better judgment.

There are still plenty of people who use the social computing tools to support command-driven agendas.  However, I think there are two things that can lead to a lowered perception of hierarchy in the real world.

First, I think the social computing environment itself creates a certain approachability.  There is no “executive row” where lower level staff fear to go.  Everyone starts off equal without rank, tenure, gender or other discriminator.

Second, when there is an honest attempt to open communications and a sense of real reciprocity (that is everyone at every level actively engages in a constructive way), Social Capital begins to build.

According to Prusak and Cohen in In Good Company:

“Social capital consists of the stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual understanding, and shared values and behaviors that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible.”

So the new behaviors that get enabled in the cyber world ultimately may provoke change to be realized in the face-to-face world.  I think you can envision how the openness enabled by the social computing environment could positively affect the real world.

On Generational differences—
Concerning the differences in behavior among the generations, there’s been some reporting lately that it is not necessarily true that it is the younger generation who are the first movers or the most active in social sites.  I think it’s safe to say that the younger generation who have been IMing and Facebooking and MySpacing are more familiar with the tools and may be more likely to just use them.  However as it was reported in the Q&A at the end of the webinar, some of the findings of the CIA in their Intellipedia were that it was the older generation who were the biggest contributors.  They had a lot to share and it was easy for them to do so.  They probably also had the best perspective on the contribution to the overall mission.

It was also reported that in some cases they younger people don’t share at times because they are trying to build their reputations (I suspect this has to do most with the intersection of self interest and corporate culture in places where the equity and reciprocity haven’t taken hold).  To me this is again a symptom of missing trust components in the overall environment.

I’ll do some more digging over time to see what I can find to support my thoughts.  Please feel free to continue to share yours.

My recap of Social Networks for Business Success (29Sep09 webinar)

In case you missed the event (the replay should be available for about 90 days in the archives at Social Networks for Business Success).

Here’s my recap of the event…

I really liked the diversity of the four speakers:

  • J.B. Holston, CEO & President, NewsGator
  • Catherine van Zuylen, VP, Product Marketing, Americas Attensity Corporation
  • Mike Vertal, President & CEO, Rivet Logic
  • Debra Louison Lavory, Director, Product Marketing, Digital and Social Media, Open Text

Each presentation represented the unique perspectives of their presenters

  • JB – a leading bolt-on to Sharepoint that adds great features for improved collaborative experiences
  • Catherine  – cloud-based text analysis of social and other sources supporting the “conversation driven enterprise”
  • Mike – use of open source tools to build your social computing capability
  • Deb – extension of the familiar process-based content management suite to enable social work patterns

but they all reinforced the benefits of driving Social Computing and in their own ways how to remove barriers to adoption.  It’s good to see The McKinsey report that recently came out is being quoted everywhere. Here are the main thoughts I took away from the presentations:

J.B. emphasized some of the key notions of social computing in a business setting that are very similar to the consumer social computing tools.

  1. I’m in the center of everything, it’s all about what’s I need
  2. Although it’s about me, I want to find others like me and the stuff those people produce.  Somehow community needs to be easy to find, easy to join and make it easy to share.  Part of the trick to adoption is figuring out who is like me. In some business cultures (large insular ones, for example), you may want to allow communities that don’t seem to be core to the business to let people get used to the tools, get used to sharing, have some fun and build some trust.
  3. To draw in those who might otherwise not be bothered to participate, leverage workflow integration.

Catherine presented the challenge of exploding information from all over the internet that your firm may want to be aware of.  There were a lot of places the conversation could have gone (CRM, HR and policy compliance), but she kept her examples to more of a CRM vein.  The Attensity Cloud offering allows for the mining of blogs, discussion fora, microblogging, and mainstream news sites for trends on topics you choose (your company and products, competitors, etc.), parses it and presents the information on a dashboard using different presentation techniques (trendlines, conversation cloud, etc.) to allow for real-time assessment and action.  The key takeaway for me was that you don’t have to be ignorant in the “river of information” you can keep a finger on the pulse of all the media, social and otherwise, and leverage it to your business advantage.

Mike brought the interesting perspective that the tools enabling good social computing are not necessarily expensive and propietary. He points out that many of the consumer social networking tools we’ve become familiar with are build using open source components. He cites Gartner’s “Tutorial: Social Context, Not Technology, Defines Social Software”, 30 May 2008 that asserts that social software is about improving connectedness, promoting unplanned collaboration and capturing informal knowledge.  From there he shares that the cost of entry into social computing can be very small.  Many of the open source tools are free to download and the cost of setting them up may be as small as asking an intern in the IT department to play around.  One point Mike makes that I think is key is that you shouldn’t start so small you can’t get value.  The basic requirements for any social computing environment are profiles and a directory (ideally this is an index to all the profiles).  The fact is that most of the toolsets include so many features, it would be very easy to deliver a pretty feature-rich environment, so the challenges will be in adoption and driving the change in the organization.

Finally, Deb gave a good discussion about what’s really different in the new world. I really liked her perspective on “thinking collaboratively”.  We really need to get our heads around how teams amplify our strengths and diminish our individual weaknesses.

Prevailing Norms Collaborative Norms
Knowledge is power Sharing is power
I need to be perfect We need to be perfect
Build my expertise I need to learn from others
I’m on my own I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine
We improve each other

In her discussion of barriers, she indicates that people will ultimately use the collaborative tools when it’s easier to use it than not to. Deb finished up with a discussion of ROI. At the end of the day, there has to be a return. Deb mentions three kinds of measures

  1. Tactical ROI focusing on what you can save through reductions in communication latency, redundant storage, process improvements, etc.
  2. Strategic ROI focusing on solving problems such as enabling dispersed teams and avoiding brain drain
  3. Visionary ROI focusing on changing culture, driving innovation and becoming something “else” for the future.

Parting thoughts:
Social computing today is where email was in the late nineties. Nobody had the right measures of success, but we finally reached a tipping point. If you think about it, this leads us back to the discussion of where work gets done.

For so many knowledge workers, work is done in the email client whether Outlook, Lotus Notes, or something else. I have been saying for along time, the “killer app” is the integration of all my communication sources in one place. In my opinion, the Rich Internet Application (RIA) needs to be much more about letting users configure their spaces to aggregate the kinds of information they need and to interact with that information in a constructive way. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could right click on any object and tag it, rate it, route it, or connect with the author to respond to it?

That would truly change the way work gets done!

Understand your population, improve your adoption rate

I read this White Paper from Cisco today entitled Collaboration: Know Your Enthusiasts and Laggards.  It’s a thought-provoking piece.  I think they do a nice job segmenting the universe of potential collaborators into four distinct populations:  1) “collaboration enthusiast“; 2) “comfortable collaborator“; 3) “reluctant collaborator“; and 4) “collaboration laggard“.   I think it’s a great idea to use “habits and beliefs” to factor the general categories (I found it hard to ignore the part of Table 2 that had a breakdown by organization type, role and years in position; it is my experience that often the newest in roles are the most enthusiastic collaborators).

I thought their finding “The most enthusiastic users are managers in for-profit companies who have held their jobs for 3 to 9 years.” to be counter intuitive (they don’t give the number of respondents in for-profit vs not-for-profit enterprises;   I did an engagement a number of years ago with an NGO and their whole world view was that of making connections and getting more out of less).

Give this article a read.  It gives some useful shape to the adoption challenge.  The conclusion on page 6 (summarized/paraphrased here) resonates with my experiences:

  • Recognize that attitudes and culture are [at least] as important as the tools
  • Introduce tools where people will accept and use them
  • Encourage executives to model desired behaviors
  • Provide formal and informal recognition
  • Implement [and reinforce] formal collaboration processes [I would add, blend old and new tools to smooth transitions]
  • Make sure the tools, IT support and training are available.


COLLABORATE! is a blog for the discussion of anything related to how we achieve more by working together.  On the pages here, I plan to comment on things I see in my experience as well as the press and others’ blogs.

I will be inviting others to share their observations and opinions too.

This is my first attempt at this, so I imagine things will be a bit unpolished at first.  Nevertheless, I hope you find the pages interesting and will weigh in.  Any on-topic dialog will advance the body of knowledge.