Object-oriented Community?

blogtagcloudsmAs the CPsquare “Long Live the Platform” conference wraps up this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about “community” and its role within the enterprise.

Community is one of those concepts debated endlessly in circles of individuals who have spent their careers involved in one way or another with computer-mediated communication. The central question among this crew tends to be “at what point can you call a group of people who are in communication, “a community”?  Back in the day, there were worries that in-person get-togethers of individuals who had formed friendships online would in some way taint the purity of the online community they had formed.  That theory proved false – the vast majority of people who form relationships online find that meeting in person broadens and deepens their relationships.

Relationship is the key.  People are in community with one another once they have formed relationships with one another.  Those relationships may form over shared interests – there are Linux communities and cat fancier communities.  They form over shared resources:  Friends of the Library, for example.  Some of the strongest communities are those which form over shared efforts to meet shared challenges:  support groups for alcoholism recovery, parenting  and various chronic disease processes are frequently venues where people make deep and lasting friendships.

So how does any of this relate to the business world?  Well, if you can get people sufficiently interested in your product that they form a community around their shared interest in it,  that can do a lot for brand loyalty and ultimately accessory and repeat sales.  For that reason, figuring out ways to encourage the formation of “retail communities” is very high in the consumer product arena, and we see products with MySpace pages so that fans can “friend” them.

Within the enterprise, there is significant interest in fostering knowledge sharing.  During the CPsquare  conference, Eric  Sauve , whose Tomoye platforms, like our own eCampus,  use both the traditional discussion forums and the newer web 2.0  modalities to support  communities of practice,  argued that perhaps we need to expand our sense of online community to include the participation of those who find it too much effort to add to conversations, provide resources, etc., but do contribute by rating the value of other people’s contributions.

My friend and co-worker Charles Roth points out that participating in rating, while useful, more precisely identifies one as adding to what James Surowiecki calls The Wisdom of Crowds .  It’s helpful to know that people I don’t know rate a resource as valuable, but the value of that information does not compare to that of the same referral from someone with whom I have an actual relationship, and whose take on the subject at hand I know I either trust or distrust.

Is it enough to provide a platform which facilitates (and provides recognition for) “one-click participation”?  Or is it worth it to go to the next level: fostering the formation of mutually beneficial relationships among the individuals who collaborate on the various projects which further enterprise goals?

Resource constraints may indeed force some enterprises to settle for  the “crowd” solution.  Doing so certainly beats NOT gathering resources and opinions on them,  and one-click participation is better than no participation at all.

But it seems to me that fostering the growth of employee relationships  beyond shared membership in the “paycheck-receiving community, ”  beyond merely reacting to the contributions of others, and into active participation in a  true community of practice in which co-workers actively seek to provide each other with insight into their shared challenges  is what is needed to maintain agility in today’s rapidly changing marketplace.

Fostering that growth requires more than providing a platform with objects to which individuals can respond. To build the crowd into a functioning community, one must provide the venues for conversation which allow for the development of relationship.