What Is Community For? A #WorkingOutLoud Post

I’m drawing upon the two main research projects from 2017, to produce a wider report on ‘Communities’, in Social Learning, and Social Leadership. I will share this once complete. It will be a practical guide, doing four things:

* I provide a high level overview of each of the ten Aspects of Community
* I share what the various research showed us, and provide an interpretation of that
* I’ve written guidance on ‘what you can do about it’
* I provide links to additional resources that relate to that Aspect

This work draws upon the Landscape of Trust research, and the Communities of Practice research, commissioned by the NHS NW Leadership Academy, to whom i am very grateful for their support around this work.

Aspects of Social Leadership #3 Community

Today, i am just sharing part of the work in progress, one of the nine sections, this one asking ‘What is community for?

3. What is Community for?

What is a community actually for? Communities may emerge to service a particular need, to have a particular conversation, or they may exist as a backbone, to hold our ‘connection’ safe, without any specific purpose.

Within these varied communities, people carry out a wide range of conversations: sometimes through engagement with the whole community, but often with a subset, partly determined by the technology with which they engage, and partly related to the sense of consequence, or exposure to risk, that they feel.

In terms of subject, in the NHS Communities of Practice research, people liked to talk about ‘people’: the most popular keyword used when asking people about sense making and pertinence, was ‘people’, followed by ‘community’. They talked about ‘online’ communities, ‘faith’ communities, and ‘cultural’ communities. They talked about ‘young people’, and ‘inspiring people’, as well as both ‘leaders’, and ‘peers’. It safe to say that a great deal of the conversation within community was about the community, and that’s probably to be expected. Indeed, this constant dialogue about the community is probably a self reinforcing aspect of community identity. Talking about our coherence may actually contribute to our coherence.

One important thing communities do is to find their coherence, and they tend to do that in two key ways: firstly they find a consensus, where people come together and agree on something, and then secondly they unite in dissent, where people come together in opposition to something else. In politics, we are seeing the widespread engagement of communities of dissent right now.

The risks and benefits differ in both of these models of coherence: in terms of ‘sense making’, Communities of Practice can be valuable to understand data, and evolve professional practice, by creating safe sharing spaces, safe storytelling spaces, and both empathic and supportive communities to surround us whilst we rehearse new behaviours and skills.

Storytelling Ideas

The risk comes through the monoculture nature of many communities, and forces of confirmation bias. Communities can end up holding a position of negative liberty: this is a position where, whilst talking about the common good, they end up holding a position that serves the good of the community itself, and is misaligned with individual benefit: i join a community through an implicit social contract that it will also serve me, but find myself caught in a community that does not.

What did the research show?

Communities of Practice seem to stick ‘on topic’ pretty effectively: the majority of individuals taking part in the research identified as working primarily in ‘healthcare’, and the main concept they discussed was ‘healthcare’, followed by ‘psychology’, ‘healthy’, and ‘community outreach’.

Amongst the strongest utilised keywords were ‘words of improvement’: ‘community development’, ‘long-term impact’, ‘streamlining’, ‘training’, and ‘partnerships’.

People were very clear about the specific benefit that they get from the community interaction that helps them understand the subject.

They stated that ‘knowledge’ was the most important aspect, interestingly followed by ‘hearing’, which would seem to relate to importance of communities as story listening spaces.

More widely, within my own global work on Social Leadership, we see that ‘story listening’ is often in the top three traits that people look for in their leaders.

Other aspects of community interaction which were deemed particularly important included ‘experience’, ‘understanding’, ‘challenge’, and ‘active listening’.

These probably nicely reflect the ‘sense making’ and ‘developmental’ aspects of community. Gaining access to other people’s experience, and using the community to gain understanding, can both help us achieve momentum.

‘Challenge’ is clearly important too, and active listening may relate nicely to what we saw elsewhere, which is the people want mentoring support to help them tell great stories.

It’s worth exploring the keywords that people used most often to describe the aspects of community interaction that help them to understand the subject: as we’ve already seen, ‘people’, and ‘experiences’, were the most commonly used keywords.

Words around difference also occurred quite strongly: ‘different perspectives’, ‘a different point of view’, indicate the people are actively looking for a range of opinions, at least in some cases.

What you can do about this

Here are some things that you can do to best support people in figuring out what their communities are for:

1. Consider establishing a core set of formal communities, around specific disciplines, but encourage the group to established their conversational communities around the edges of these

2. Be prepared to go where the conversation is, but only using your Social Authority: don’t wade in with formal power

3. Carry out regular ‘temperature checks’ into your communities, to capture the most popular topics that people are discussing: provide a narrative back into the community with the results of that.

Resources on Community

Exploring emergent communities, and role based power.

Building, and moderating, thriving Social Learning communities.

The birth of a community

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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