Favorited The Small and Starting Community Tool Gap on In Full Flow

Good questions I don’t know the current answer to either.

What tools are there if you want to provide a small, still forming group, an appropriate space for online interaction? Tools that are either very easy to self host, or cheap enough at the start to allow quick experimentation. Tools that don’t require a lot of skill to self host, tools that don’t throw up a (cost) threshold that surpasses the energy and will of a just budding group. There’s this precious moment in the evolution of a group, where there’s intention to constitute itself, but uncertainty about whether it will happen, whether those involved will indeed commit. Where commitment is slowly forming tit-for-tat. Where the group is still more network than group, but already in need of secluded space for their interaction, and not yet set firmly enough so that applying fixed costs would immediately make it collapse again.

What tools are there that allow you to interact online in multiple small groups? We all tend to be part of multiple groups, and e.g. if a fixed monthly cost would apply to all of them, that accumulates quickly. I already see that in my own ‘subscriptions’, which take constant pruning and balancing to justify their total cost to myself and our household. I very much dislike SaaS as a result.

…in the past few months I’ve had several moments that I wanted to bring people together outside certain social silo’s… It feels like there is a tool gap, or a price gap, for bringing small communities (or temporary project groups!) together.

As the web is so big, there are probably solutions out there that I don’t know of. Please share them with me

In Full Flow

Nancy writes about the importance of endings, a rich source for reflection and of insights. And suggests it as something we should be more literate in, more deliberate in as a practice.

Yes, endings, acknowledging them, shaping them, is important.
When the BlogWalk series already had practically ended, with the last session being 18 months or so in the past, it was only when I posted about formally ending it, that it was truly done. It allowed those who participated to share stories about what it had meant to them, to say thanks, and it was a release for the organisers as well.

In our short e-book about unconferencing your birthday party (in itself a gift we sent to the participants of the most recent event it described, a year afterwards) we made a point to write about a proper ending. We had been at many events where the end was just when people left, but also at those where the end was a celebration of what we did together. We wrote "So often we were at a conference where the organizers didn’t know how to create a proper end to it. Either they’re too shy to take credit for what they’ve pulled off or they assume that most people left already and the end of the program is the last speaker to be on stage. Closure is important. It doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to be a closing keynote, but it should serve as a focal point for everyone to end the day and give them an opportunity to thank you and each other as a group, not just as individuals. We gathered everyone after the last session and made some closing remarks, the most important of which was ‘thank you!’. […] Obviously this was the time to open up a few bottles as well."

In an Open Space style setting as a moderator I find releasing the space at the end for me usually involves strong emotions, coming down to earth from creating and surfing the group’s collective energy and shared attention, from weaving the tapestry of the experience together. When E and I helped P create such a space in 2019 I wrote afterwards "When Peter thanked Elmine and they embraced, that was the moment I felt myself release the space I had opened up on Day 1 when I helped the group" settle into the event and "set the schedule. Where the soap bubble we blew collapsed again, no longer able to hold the surface tension. I felt a wave of emotions wash through me, which I recognise from our own events as well. The realisation of the beauty of the collective experience you created, the connections made, the vulnerability allowed, the fun had, the playfulness. We wound down from that rush chatting over drinks in the moon lit back yard."

Endings such as those Nancy describes and the examples I mention, need their own space. It’s not a side effect of stopping doing something, but an act in itself that deserves consideration. As Nancy suggests, a practice.

In a conference call this morning with an Eastern European client we discussed the need for more and better connections and relations, and moving towards increasing trust over time between those participating in these connections. This reminded me of the little primer I wrote a number of years back, on creating or strengthening communities more purposefully. By paying attention to a range of specific aspects that we would normally not consider as part of your management toolkit. Things like rhythm, spaces, and levels of engagement, or balancing safety and excitement, variety of perspectives, and being welcoming.

It is based on the great work of Etienne Wenger concerning communities of practice, which has been a key ingredient in my consulting practices in the past 15 years or so, ever since his 2002 book Cultivating Communities of Practice.

The primer, embedded below, describes the aspects I pay attention to when hoping to strengthen community, some stemming from Wenger, some from my direct experience, and provides examples of what type of action results from it. You can also download the PDF from my slide deck collection, if you like. Do let me know if it is of use for you.

I can also recommend the book by Etienne.

In the past 14 months I worked together with a group of teachers at Rotterdam University. In this posting I reflect on how the group was or wasn’t forming into a community, and how we used a platform for online interaction.
For a more general description see my earlier posting about the general results.

Rethink logo during final event (l), Informal drinks (r, by Anja)

Was this group a community? No!
Was this group of teachers a community of practice? Was it a group? I can answer that question with a ‘No’. We started with a group of strangers. All came from different departments of Rotterdam University, and did not know each other before. At the end, during the last interviews with group members, at least one (very active and committed) person said that ‘it still does not feel like a group to me’. Others were irritated about the (perceived) lack of commitment of other members towards the group, and the way people did not do their agreed upon tasks. Yet other members do not associate the term ‘community’ with them as a group, but with the fact that we used an on-line platform as part of our exchanges. Also we lost some group members along the way, who for different reasons could not continue their efforts. Also remarks were made about face to face meetings that indicate they were sometimes viewed as staff meetings or other more formal settings. All in all, these were signs there was not as much cohesion as we hoped to achieve.

Jet creating a Flickr account
During hands-on session (l), and me showing my terrible hand writing (r, by Jet Houwers)

Was this group a community? Yes!
Was this group of teachers a community of practice? Was it a group? I can answer that question with a ‘Yes’. Part of what one can see as sign of not being a community, are in fact signs of community. Having different layers of involvement (up to and including the point of withdrawing from the group), and especially having people care about other member’s level of involvement and commitment are signs of feeling a relationship with those others. Likewise people were not reluctant to talk about each other’s behaviour in the group, which requires a certain level of group safety. Also on their own initiative little sub groups were formed that worked together on different tasks. There was an enormous amount of constructive criticism and positive feedback, especially in the exchanges in the platform. The amount of energy exhibited by the core of the group clearly spoke of community forming to me, filling e.g. the roles of opinion leaders, group influencers etc. Another member was instrumental as a facilitator to other people’s progress, even if he did not really notice it himself. Hands-on sessions where talk was replaced by doing were experienced as very stimulating: ‘I still remember exactly everything I learned that day‘. There are examples where specific group members were essential in personal break through events for other members resulting in real shifts in attitude, as well as examples of people consciously intervening in the group’s dynamics on a very personal level. But most telling of all is the fact that the group largely wants to go on, even now the project has ended. Going on and at the same time welcoming in additional people into the group. In parallel with the project a large group of colleagues has found themselves in Yammer.com (Twitter for within your organization) where exchanges are taking place, adding different layers of involvement yet again. All those are most certainly signs of community forming (creating rhythm, spaces and layers of involvement, and being actively inviting). Had we put the group under more pressure regarding the intensity of working together we probably would have speeded the forming of relationships up, but at the cost of attaching it more completely to the specific context of the project. It would have heightened the risk of the group falling apart after the project once the pressure that kept it together vanished. Whatever happens now is of their own choosing, based on the context they created themselves in the past year. Part of the community building effort of the past year thus will only be reaped after the end of the project, and with people that weren’t part of the project. That’s an important transfer aspect, and transfer of knowledge was a key part of our goals.

HZap08 Final Informal Meeting
During drinks (l), Screen showing the platform (r, by Anja)

The role of our online platform
Right from the start we used a Drupal based online platform for our interaction between face to face sessions. It resembles the set-up of Howard Rheingold’s Social Media Classroom in certain aspects (not a coincidence as we compared notes in June last year). Over the course of a year the dozen members wrote over 6900 entries in the platform. Interestingly enough eventually entries were posted during all hours of a 24 hour period. The entries show a classic power-law pattern. Some posted over 400 times, others posted only once or twice. Those that were posting only sporadically mentioned different reasons for doing so. The lay-out of the site was lacking contrast for easy reading (we originally styled it in black to give it an underground look and feel), some found having multiple navigational aids to get to the same information (in stead of having a clear hierarchical organization of content) confusing. Others had their own blogs they used to chronicle their work, even though it meant missing out on much of the interaction with the rest of the group. Also there was a specific group that at first was reluctant to share much on-line, as well as put a picture of themselves alongside it: they had been raised to be modest and unobtrusive.
The platform was intensively used for mostly constructive criticism and positive and encouraging feedback. Though at times members complained about not getting feedback on contributions at all. It was also used as a sandbox, to learn yourself how to embed video’s and photo’s for instance.

De Werkplaats
Front page of our platform ‘De Werkplaats’ (the workshop), in ‘underground black’

All in all the platform served an important role during the year. I certainly underestimated the time and energy needed to be able to adapt the platform to emerging needs over time. We planned to start the platform low-key and then add features when the group wanted them. In practice I only came around to a few minor changes early on (adding a bit of functionality, and fixing search issues in the platform), as I needed to spend virtually all my available time on working with the group itself. Ideally we would have had someone running the platform as a seperate role, working in tandem with me as group facilitator and the project leader, so different roles would not hinder eachother in competition for time and energy.
Two other things of note. After the project ended formally early April, no activity took place anymore in the platform. We resorted to e-mail to make sure that the information concerning the final group event we organized early June was received by all (including those that did not use the platform frequently). Second, the group that wants to go on now that the project has ended, has indicated that they would like to continue to use the platform, albeit in somewhat altered fashion. I have promised to work with them to make that happen, and will also keep the domain and hosting available to them.