Not much is new: networks have been around a long time. For decades, technology has been easing communication, making it ever simpler for individuals to connect around shared ideas, problems and intent. What’s different now is the ownership and speed: the fact that the infrastructure has become democratised and widespread and the pace of conversation is almost immediate.
As organisations no longer own the networks, as our conversations can fluidly move between formal, social, virtual and physical spaces, all without interruption to the narrative, the networks have become both more dynamic and more immediately purposeful.
We can connect in person, then, whilst we are talking i can email links to articles or send photos. We can continue the conversation by email whilst connecting on LinkedIn and Google+, where we can extend invitations into different communities or groups. We can use instant messaging through SMS, Hangouts, Skype, Yammer or a dozen other platforms, many of which can suddenly up the bandwidth to full video, and many of which are beyond the reach and ownership of the organisation.
Even within organisations that attempt to own the spaces, we typically see individuals subverting the hierarchy by connecting anyway, through their personal phones into anonymised spaces. The desire to connect and to do so in ways that are free from influence and oversight is strong.
If the proliferation of communicative and socially collaborative technologies has changed the ways we connect, it’s the speed of communication, the synchronous nature of these communities, that has made us more effective.
Once communities are formed and are cohesive, we can utilise them for ‘sense making‘ activities, for problem solving and strategic support (as well as for social reinforcement and validation). What matters is our ability to share, freely and synchronously, into the population (or a subset of the population) and interact in almost real time.
Communities that lack this rapidity of interaction are the ones at risk of stagnation: they are less purposeful, less effective.
The picture is complex: organisations know that they want to leverage the value of communities, but they often start by looking at infrastructure, whilst what they really need to do is understand conversations. What problems are the community wrestling with and which communities or spaces can help them solve it? Those communities may neither be formal, nor internal, but they will almost certainly be both fluid and synchronous.
The mindset needs to be less about control, more about facilitation.