A Community of Communities*…Learning from Open Source

Aug 31

Fact: the word “community” has been used and abused in recent years as every “brand” and its dog strives to better “engage” its customers and cultivate a more “social business”. As an ECM practitioner, marketer, writer and researcher I have both contributed to and criticized some of this thinking.

When I left the traditional enterprise software world 2 years ago, it was after a lightbulb went off in my head: it was important to walk the talk. Despite the corporate tech jargon about empowerment, engagement, social workplaces and marketplaces, few examples of truly collaborative business software communities actually exist. The ones that do exist are predominantly within the open source development model.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been fortunate to attend LinuxCon in Vancouver as well as the Ottawa FOSSLC events.

Clay Shirky @ LinuxCon

Clay Shirky‘s keynote at LinuxCon on the topic of “Structured Fighting” was particularly noteworthy for its recognition of the “squishy human stuff” that is inextricably intertwined with technology. (A fantastic recap here at opensource.com) Community success is not a love-fest or rah-rah set of corporate fanbois. It’s about users, developers and implementers who have skin in the game. Perhaps as coders, but possibly also as beta testers, bug reporters, translators or documentation proofreaders. Civilization (and good technology), according to Shirky comes from “More people pooling resources in new ways… after arguing about it for a really long time.” “Structured fighting”, to use Shirky’s terms, means mutually agreed codes of conduct, roles, and ultimately how decisions are made.

Mekki MacAulay @ FOSSLC / #SC2011

Another great talk on the topic of communities was given by software engineer and business PhD candidate Mekki MacAulay at the Ottawa Software Developer’s Haven event. Drawing upon some of his academic research, MacAulay analyzed survey results from several open source project leaders to assess the factors that led to community implosion or drift. The key findings, I am convinced, could be applied to any type of community, not only from the software or open source world.

Adaptive vs. Recursive Practices and Effect on Community Density

Practices that affect community density, ie, the “push and pull” factors, in MacAulay’s talk, can be described as adaptive or recursive. Adaptive processes are those that are those that change or morph to reach out to new participants or scenarios. Recursive practices are those that apply existing procedures or structures to new situations or challenges. The research sought to compare adaptive vs. recursive community practices to their relative success at enabling or disabling participation.

The findings, while on the surface surprised some of the attendees, weren’t really a shock upon reflection. Adaptive processes are likely to be enabling because there is a conscious effort to find new ways to get participation. When peripheral players feel engaged, and equipped to contribute, the power shifts from the central leaders out to a broader spectrum of the community. Finding new ways to contribute appropriate for newbies means building confidence faster. A new community member could start by helping with documentation, if they’re not ready to commit code.

In my interpretation: get players to put some level of skin in the game early, and you’ll more quickly build the pool of advanced contributors.

However… these adaptive processes can occasionally alienate. MacAulay found that practices that catered too much to the newer players could lead to a community fraught with uncertainty, fragmentation, loss of traction. “Cowboyism” can make things fuzzy, especially in a new community without a strong core of veterans.

This actually makes complete sense to me. Personally, I see a red flag when a service or product jumps too high to ‘engage’ me by begging for input on what I want to see next. Gives the impression there is no roadmap or strategy and I question its focus.

Recursive practices, while sounding negative in tone, could also result in deeper community engagement. As MacAulay noted, this is particularly true in established communities. Documented procedures and guidelines that demonstrate purpose, or provide stability and common direction, can help kick-start participation.  Guiding new members to how-to guides, recommended mailing lists/forums, mentors, is an essential part of passing down of “corporate memory”.

This is knowledge transfer and respect for corporate memory in action. As a primary use case for enterprise collaboration and content management, communities that distill and pass down the core principles and successful approaches make it easy to cultivate the students and apprentices who can master… then innovate.

The recording of the full MacAulay session is posted at the event site. Recommended viewing for anyone interested in community dynamics, software development and the open source as a social marketplace in action.

* Bonus points to anyone who identifies the political quote that inspired this title…