Is there value in Communities?

There is an interesting debate in Farida Hasanali’s APQC KM Blog on whether communities need to show tangible value to get funded. I had posted my comments in her blog and thought I should blog it here as well.

I said:

“At the heart of the problem are the mental models of managers.David Meggitt writes about a paradigm shift that managers need to go through to appreciate the value of communities. He calls it the “newer thinking”. Once this shift happens, managers realize that these organic systems need “nurturing”(via support systems) as opposed to typical manegerial interventions. “

One of my earlier blogs on Lurking and its impact on social capital and Nancy White’s comments on that are also useful in to understand this better. Trying to pin down the ROI of a community is going to be tough-tougher if you are looking at quick results. One of the key areas to address would be to convince managers that it takes a lot of effort to reap tangible/intangible benefits from communities. Wenger says:”If I were talking to a CEO, I would say to him or her, ‘If you choose to build communities of practice for your members, understand that significant communication and nurturing will be required.These communities are completely voluntary. If your communities don’t create value, people will vote with their feet. … Don’t just open a few discussion boards on your Web site. You have decided to cultivate something that is alive.”

Which also suggests that if there was no value(tangible & intangible) being created in the community ,the community would cease to exist(iresspective of the funding it gets). If a bunch of guys are meeting regularly and are having sustained interactions over a period of time and if the organization feels that the domain is of strategic importance to them-it should be funded.

Behaving as if intangible benefits dont affect the company’s bottomline would be foolish. Yeah,we dont know how to measure it perfectly but we “know” that ties and trust do have an impact on how quickly work gets done. Would a typical manager treat a serious anecdote from a community member on the value the CoP created for him on par with a more rigorous ROI statement. If he does, he understands the inherent complexities(social nature) of work and has crossed the rubicon into the “newer thinking”.

Organizations also need to make this shift-to understand that communties are about building long term capabilities. This snippet from a CIO article sums it up pretty well:

In his book The Living Company (Harvard Business School Press, 1997), Arie de Geus says that the average life span of Fortune 500 companies is only about 50 years. The reason they don’t live up to their potential, de Geus argues, is because most companies have a heavy economic bent rather than an organic one. In other words, de Geus believes, companies are so focused on turning a profit that they effectively shut down any feedback mechanisms that could promote learning and growth“. Full article here

I think Communities are one such “feedback mechanism that could promote learning and growth” or rather is part of the “learning loop”(Assuming an individual is a member of both a team and a community within the organization).

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