A LinkedIn invitation lands in my inbox. Ian’s added me. I don’t think we’ve ever met. Says he’s a friend.
If I’m such a good friend, can I borrow a fiver?
That distance between a friend and a ‘friend’ is a good illustration of the difference between a network and a community online, and the extent to which communities and friends have lost their meaning in an age of constant connectedness.
My social network allows me to maintain connections with people with whom I’d otherwise have lost touch years ago, and to create connections with others I may never meet. But this comes at a cost – the depth of those relationships.
My friend Richard, who I spoke to pretty much every day in the late 90s, says he doesn’t even need to call me anymore as he only needs to look at Twitter to see what I’m up to. He’s not alone; recent research found that the more up to date we are with our friends’ lives on Facebook, the less likely we are to call or meet up with them in real life, leading to increased feelings of loneliness.
This is all a long way from early analyses of the web (in the McLuhan tradition) which posit that where technology bridges the hindrance of physical connection in order to facilitate real-time communicative activity, social circles expand and thrive to create a “global village”.
The very openness of the web can, the theory goes, allow people to create communities of interest and interact with others who share their interests, regardless of their physical location. But this is rarely borne out by the reality of Facebook, which is a reflection of our own narrow interests, and a series of tiny, posed glimpses into the lives of people with whom we share a degree of connection.
It’s not, in the true sense, a community.
- A network is a set of relationships, personal interactions and connections (in social network analysis terms, sets of nodes and links), with linkages and information flows between them.
- A community, on the other hand, has a sense of shared identity, one which – however tacit and distributed – has a shared sense of purpose.
Over time the term community is increasingly being used to describe what are really networks. When people talk about the “investor community” or the “open data community”, they’re talking about people with common interests, not a shared sense of identity or belonging.
Like most debates the internet throws up, this one has a history that predates Berners-Lee. Sociologists have long sought to define different types of group identity and social bonds, most famously in the work of Ferdinand Tönnies, who proposed two dichotomous social groupings, called (in German) gemeinschaft and gesselschaft.
According to this model, social ties can be categorised, on one hand, as belonging to personal social interactions, and the roles, values, and beliefs based on such interactions (Gemeinschaft, commonly translated as “community” ), or on the other hand as belonging to indirect interactions, impersonal roles, formal values, and beliefs based on such interactions (Gesellschaft, commonly translated as “society” or “association”) [wikipedia]
Gemeinshaft is characterised by:
- Emphasis on the needs and interests of the group
- The group being more important than the members
- Strong communal relations and a “unity of will”
- Shared moral values and beliefs
- Weaker division of labour, with less task or role specialisation
Examples of gemeinshaft social groups include families, sports teams, rural villages and tribes
Gesellschaft is characterised by:
- Individualism overriding community
- Contractual relationships over informal ones
- Stronger division of labour and greater specialisation
- Diverse social mores
Examples of gesellschaft social groups include corporations, companies, countries, social clubs or universities.
Tönnies proposed these as ideal types; he argued a social group isn’t purely gemeinshaft or gesellschaft, but rather both types will be at work at varying strengths or in different parts of the group.
Nonetheless, Tönnies’ theory provides a useful lens through which to view enterprise social networks (ESNs). The aim of many ESNs is to build engagement, to connect people with common purpose, to build and strengthen relationships between individuals and with the group and to achieve buy-in to the organisation’s brand and purpose – in other words, to build a gemeinshaft. Yet ESNs exist within large organisations and corporations, characterised by individualism, contractual relations and deep division of labour – an almost ideal-type gesellschaft. That dichotomy could explain the failure to gain much of the promised value from such networks.
As any social network – on or offline – scales, there’s a shift from gemeinshaft to gesselschaft, as community size begins to demand the need for governance, rules and specialised roles. This process happens less frequently in reverse, where members seek a return to the days where networks were smaller, purer and characterised by personal relationships. And therein lies the challenge for community managers.
Establishing an ESN
ESNs are typically established in one of two ways: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down networks are conceived and rolled out with senior management support; they typically have strong governance, rules and formal community management from the start – and so exhibit more gesselschaft-type features. This contrasts with the bottom-up approach used by freemium ESN products, where networks can be created by groups of employees themselves, existing as gemeinschaft-type groups before being adopted and scaled by management, where governance, roles and rules are imposed.
The latter approach has – for good reason – fallen out of favour in the digital workplace world, replaced by models which focus on identifying and delivering replicable use cases for social and collaboration. But that’s been at the cost of the strength of group identity and purpose, leading to a failure to realise wider engagement benefits.
Successful social networks outside of the firewall have long since recognised the need to cater for both weak and strong social ties and groupings. Facebook, for example, allows you to restore gemeinshaft by delineating between friends and acquaintances, or by creating your own closed and secret communities which can turn a blind eye to their terms of service.
For global organisations in particular, collaboration and communication tools are fast becoming essential.They enable communication to scale, and for big companies to feel smaller and more personal. But enterprises succeed when they foster and deepen personal, collaborative relationships – albeit ones which operate and speed and scale, across distance, thanks to technology – to create a common sense of identity and purpose. In other words, they thrive when they function as both networks and collections of functioning communities.
A shift in approach
To drive greater value from an ESNs, companies need to take a similar approach to Facebook and create the conditions for more gemeinshaft-type communities to exist, characterised by close social ties and shared purpose, within the wider network.
This approach requires a shift in mindset in the use case approach to ESN rollout. Here are three ways in which standard adoption models could be adapted to allow for more grassroots growth, in order to create groups with stronger social bonds and shared purpose:
1. Find existing strong communities and give them the tools to deepen those bonds
When rolling out any tool, the temptation is to focus on fixing problems in collaboration between existing (dis)functional teams. By shifting this focus to groups who are already working and collaborating successfully and allowing them to build on that success, we can create advocates for the network and identify ways in which it can add value.
This contrasts with one of the stated aims of social within the enterprise – that of ‘breaking down silos’. But such as approach presupposes that silos are entirely bad; in many instances what can be seen as a ‘silo’ is in fact a well-functioning group. The aim should instead be to grow or replicate the success of that group rather than destroying it.
2. Create a beachhead
In Crossing the Chasm, Geoff Moore recommends establishing a small, narrow “beachhead” to scale up from early adopters and “cross the chasm” to the mass market. This beachhead is a small slice of the mass market – a gemeinshaft community. By identifying and taking over this thin edge of the wedge, you establish a basis on which to grow adoption and use.
This approach forms part of the recommended use case-focused ESN rollout plan recommended by many vendors – but taken alone providing ‘cookie cutter’ models of group types, that can be deployed multiple times across the organisation, can add to feelings that the ESN seeks to reduce people to interchangeable resources. The beachhead strategy could reduce those feelings of atomisation.
3. Let communities grow from the bottom up
Finally, there is a need to recognise the value of groups that emerge from a company’s grassroots. These often have stronger group bonds and a clearer sense of purpose than models imposed from the centre. In this qualitative study of one large organisation, employees saw the ESN as a “tool full of possibilities”.
But it’s only when users begin to understand and use a tool or information system that they begin to place it in the context of their own work and understand how they might use it within their own group context – what the researchers called “interpretive flexibility”. That is, for systems to be adopted, people need to begin to use them, interpret them, and finally place them in their own context, tweaking as necessary.
Adoption of Enterprise Social Collaboration, the paper notes, benefits from users finding their own affordances for the tool in the context of their own work and relationships, which helps to build networks effects (what we’d call viral take-up).
Affordances depend not just on what a person perceives they can do with an object or system, but all of their goals, plans, values, beliefs and past experiences (what sociologists called “sociomateriality”). People look at systems or objects and think of their uses in the context of other tools they’re familiar with – in the case of an ESN, they might think about its potential by considering what they do with networks such as LinkedIn, and sites on the external web, but also their experiences with self-service HR systems.
To allow people to understand the possibilities and affordances the ESN provides, we need to give people the space to experiment, and in doing so enable them to understand the potential uses and affordances, and to contextualise them.
This requires taking a different approach to rules and governance – an acceptance, for example, that a grassroots-up community has very different ideas about brand guidelines than those at the corporate centre – but creates the conditions for groups that have a strong sense of purpose and engagement to emerge and thrive.
By taking a different approach to establishing and rolling out an ESN that allows for – and builds upon – the existence of strong social groups and ties, we can allow them to function as both networks and successful communities, enabling our organisations gain greater value from their investment in social tools.