I think i would put today’s writing firmly in the speculative space: i am thinking about how Communities operate within Formal Organisations, and prototyping a new language around it. But i do not expect this to be ‘right’ yet. It’s an abstraction, a tool and space to help me think it through, to articulate a central idea: i want to move away from the notion that we have one ‘Community’, towards a more layered approach, where we recognise an underlying potential for community, and then a range of expressions of that potential.
For example: one expression may well be a formally mandated community, another may be a formally recognised or tolerated one, and a third may be an informal, emergent, invisible, one. All three are types of Community, and all three probably trade in the same social currencies (which, as regular readers will know, is something else i am playing with at the moment). So to play with this notion, i’ve invoked the ancient language of ‘firmament’, the etherial ‘stuff’ from which matter is made: in this case, instead of earth, fire, air, and water, i’m using a ‘Community’ firmament, to represent a broad collection of individuals with high Social Capital.
I used the term Social Capital, back in the Social Leadership Handbook in 2014, to describe the ‘ability to survive and thrive’ in our new socially collaborative, and connected, world. The idea was that Social Leaders must have high Social Capital, but also that they build it in others. This work builds upon that: if Social Leaders help to build high Social Capital in a group, then that group has high Community potential e.g. it is primed to establish communities, of whatever sort.
Almost as an accident, this paradigm of understanding Community may help Organisations with questions of Engagement: they can perhaps unhitch the notion of Engagement from any specific Community, and look more broadly at engagement within the context of the Community Firmament. But to do so will require a nuanced understanding of what ‘engagement’ means to them: are they wedded (or stuck) at the notion of interaction, or have they moved to a space of effectiveness and social strength. Or to put it another way, do they simply recognise and reward people who click ‘like’, or ‘share’, or do they recognise high Social Capital when it is just invested within the nascent community space, through, for example, empathy, kindness, sharing, and reputation?
In this illustration, i have identified three types of Community that emerge from the socially seeded firmament: Ad Hoc collectives, Formal Collectives, and Formal Communities. This may be where i veer furthest off track, using the term ‘collective’ to differentiate from ‘community’.
Ad hoc collectives are emergent, short lived, bubbles of social activity. One could view them as informal conversations within trusted groups, or as longer term collectives based around shared values etc. Formal Collectives are these which are either officially recognised, or at least known to exist and tolerated. So they lack clear formal oversight or recognition, but directly touch back to the effectiveness of the Organisation. Formal Communities are those which are formally established and led. So Communities of Practice may end up being either Formal Collectives, if they spontaneously emerge, or Formal Communities, if they are led by formal leaders.
A Socially Dynamic Organisation will like have all three types: every Organisation has ad hoc collectives, many build Formal Communities, but perhaps the biggest gain is to be had by creating space for Emergent Collectives to exist, and the right type of leadership for them to thrive.
And beyond that: we should focus time and energy on the Community Firmament: less concerned about where it will find expression, more concerned about how we ensure it is fit and healthy for purpose.