Community Perspective

It’s amazing how restricting the amount of space you have to express a concept crystalizes what is truly important about that idea. Recently, in my ‘community’ Twitter list, Holly Seddon asked a very good question which helped give me one of those ‘A-ha’ moments:

‘In one word, what should using an online community feel like or give you?’

I loved the challenge of coming up with a single word to describe a key benefit to participating in community. After some reflection, the word that popped into my head was ‘perspective’. When communities are functioning at their peak (and I think this is true even of ‘development’ communities), one of the most powerful things you can glean from your participation is the perspective of one or more of the other community members.

Being able to look at business problems, source code issues, or any other medium within a community from a different angle is incredibly powerful. As an engineer, I used to get some of my most inspired ideas from listening and reading what others in discussion forums were posting. If you have a specific problem, a direct approach to soliciting help from your community gives you (sometimes) multiple different ideas & perspectives on your issue. Throwing these thoughts into the mix as you work toward a solution can be an invaluable step in the problem solving process.

There are a lot of reasons why people or companies start communities, but I believe a large portion of those reasons can be traced back to the need to get additional different perspectives – developers looking for ideas, companies looking for consumer input, social groups looking to connect with other like-minded individuals. I’ll admit that not everyone in the corporate world always understands this – mainly because asking for and reflecting on a different perspective requires the kind of humility that some companies (and even some governments) don’t always possess.

We’ve all participated in groups where we’ve felt our opinions didn’t matter, and I’m willing to bet you probably disengaged pretty quickly if that’s the experience you encountered. I urge companies and their individual employees to strongly consider this when setting up your own internal or external communities. Ask yourself the question: ‘Is this a place where I’d want to participate – is my perspective going to be welcomed and celebrated?’. If the answer is ‘no’, it’s time to go back to the drawing board in the plans for building out that community. If you are already participating in a well-oiled community, remember to appreciate the different perspectives you get – even the ones you might not necessarily agree with. 🙂

Posted in TeamForge
4 comments on “Community Perspective
  1. What a great question that is! As I considered an answer, it helped me realize that there’s no such thing as “an online community” — that is, no one such thing. Just like any other human groupings, there are many kinds, ways of forming, purposes, tenors, and answers to the question. Your answer to this question isn’t about some absolute, eternal, singular truth: it’s an insight into the community you think of as you answer.
    You might say “socialization,” or “chat.” That identifies a casual, friendly, informal community, an on-line analog of your favorite coffee house or pub or student center or living room.
    You might say “perspective,” as Guy did, identifying a group with more focus: at least intent to consider substantive, difficult issues (whether life-issues or design-issues).
    You might say “answers,” identifying a customer-support kind of community.
    While I agree with Guy that there are developer communities that function at the “perspective” level, though, I think the goal of the innersource Community Manager needs to be “synergy.” As I watch highly functional development communities (such as the Subversion development team), the primary dynamic I see is an organized multiplication of the famous idea that “given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.” People come to the Subversion Developer’s community (in email, discussions, or IRC) to lay a problem on the table, open it up, point out its thorns, and then hope someone else spots at least a thread of solution. A conversation may involve two people or ten; it may last an hour or only a minute, but very very often someone is able to spot something, or suggest a possible direction, or drop a keyword that sends the asker away better equipped to resolve the issue.

  2. Guy Martin says:

    Thanks for teasing out some of the more subtle kinds of answers Jack! I agree with you that there are myriad ways to answer this question, and that there are as many ‘online communities’ as there are people on this globe. 🙂
    I think the reason I chose ‘perspective’ was because it seems (at least to me) to be the ‘root’ of all of the other things you mentioned. When looking for socialization, chat, answers, or synergy, you are looking (at least partially) for a perspective different than your own. I agree that there are times that affirmation is the goal, but in my experience, a primary value proposition of working in community is getting a view on what you are working on that differs from your own.
    As humans, we sometimes fall into the trap of seeking out others with the same perspectives we have to the exclusion of other points of view. I believe any type of community is a critical component to helping solve issues, learn new things, and grow beyond our current ways of thinking. As such, companies interested in growing and thriving should be embracing this kind of effort.

  3. Guy Martin says:

    Thanks Maricela!
    I like that ‘mashup’ word – interpretation and creation?

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