Did web 2.0 kill communities ?

Summary : communities are a very trendy topic for enterprises. And yet it’s not a new matter at all. Communities form and live so easily on the net that enterprises thought they could do the same with their employees and clients…with mixed sucess. The purposely sustained impression that tools create communities while they only create the conditions to host them and marketing discourses according to which everything should be community got the better of years of work and researches on communities, leading organizations to many dead-ends. It’s high time to call these groups or spaces differently and manage them accordingly before the “2.0 madness” turn this powerful concept into a deprecated buzzword.

When I’m asked “how to create, manage and energize communities inside and outside my company” I often feel like answering this :

“There are communities that exist and don’t need you and those that don’t exist and aren’t worth wasting your time to make them live”

I have to admit that it’s simplistic and, in some ways, wrong.

• Communities need a shared interest, a shared goal and the will to interact together. At first sight, it only need the rigght people to be identified and provided with the means to exist and exchange as a community. Let’s admit that sometimes it works (as soon as means and tools that will help the community to live, exchange and exist as such are available, members find one another and the communty forms and structures itself), but sometimes not (the community exists in people minds but don’t form in a tangible way). That’s often caused by two factors : lack of trust towards the organization (sometimes these communities live outside or the organization, under the radar but refuse to become official and institutional) or management issues (is participation a part of people’s job or wasted time, even stolen information ?).

• Communities can be created ex-nihilo but awareness has to be raised before in order that the willingness to “do together’ emerge. Only then it will be time to tools things. Here again, before creating and managing a community, the first step is to creat the conditions that will make it exist.

In fact, in my opinion, communities can’t be created. But its success factor do. Then it can be managed, moderated, facilitated but it will always be impossible to make a community do what it doesn’t want to.

You’ll tell me that all that is obvious and you’ll be true. Communities are not a recent concern. We always knew that they would be very hard to build, that there must be barriers at the entry, that they need a lot of time etc… A tough work which principles have been clearly established by Etienne Wenger.So things were clear. But it seems to me that, these last years, the ‘community thing” become more and more confused and confusing for enterprises, what was recently confirmed by some researchers I talked with.

In one word : while organizations used to know where to head to even if it was difficult, now they’re totally lost. Consequence : they invest a lot a time and money and are often deceived. One reason to that : no one knows what a community is anymore.

When talking about internal communities, people usually mean communities of practices. Then emerged the communities of interest. They shared a common point ; their levers are known and organizations know that it’s hard to institutionalize them in the workplace.

Now, organizations have the impression that anything can be turned into a comunity in just one click to such an extent that the word community is used for human groups that looks like anything except a community. Not a surprise that these groups often fail when they’re managed as communties and deliver so little results in regard to the efforts made. But what are the reasons to this situations ?

At the beginning there’s the famous web 2.0 and its community side. As a matter of fact the web is really made of communities because it provides people that want to participate with both the tools to structure their space, exchange and find their peers. Add to this the critical mass of users that can be found on the web compared to the number of employees in any organization and it’s easy to understand why the web became a kind of community paradise.

Things got more complicated when organization tried to build communities for their own benefit, both externally and internally.

Externally first because some marketing and sales people told them that their clients and prospects were communities, what can be true but can often be discussed. Then they were told than they could create communities from scratch, overlooking a fundamental fact : the web hosts and supports communties but the “community willingness” was pre-existing. The web did not create any community, it only welcomed and hosted them. Communties can be created but the “communtiy willingness” can. And it makes a big difference.

Then internally. Struggling at building communities of practices (what is hard by defiition) they were told that they’ll achieve the same results as the web if they used the same tools. Once again it’s a terrible mistake. At the same time because a community willingness had to pre-exist among amployees and become the context of the enterprise (job definition, evaluation) makes things even more difficult. In some ways, organizations have been deceived by vendores that promised them “one click communties” while the only thing any software can offer is the ability to create spaces to host communities but, in no way, to free oneself from the well known conditions of success of a community of practices. Sofware only makes things much easier once these conditions are met. One may even find paradoxical that, while a success factor is the existence of a barrier at the entry, so many people put their hope in solutions that were supposed to lower the barrier. The fact is that, with the hope to create one-click communties, organizations created communities of a new kind that still have no name because they tally with nothing. At least, nothing community.

Mintzberg said that most of today’s problems were caused by lack of community-ship within organizations. Ecouraged by vendors that tried to make the most of it, they began seeing everything as communies and turn any human group into a communty, hoping new behaviors and value will emerge. But facts die hard : except for organizations that have the right DNA, called something a community is not enough to change values and behaviors. Let’s call a cat a cat : many groups called communities are workgroups, teams or ……dreams. So give them their real name and manage them as such, so there will be more chances to get anything from them.

And keep the name communty for groups that deserve it and can be managed as such.

By the way ? Did web 2.0 killed communities ? Not at all, it even gave them more energy. On the other hand it made things look that easy that many organizations took dead ends.

In fact, communties are doing quite fine…provided organizations stay out of their way. Community experts that have been studying that matter long before web 2.0 may think that the concept has been lead astray these last years…

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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