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February 17, 2006

You can't "create" community!

To say you've created a community is like saying you've created a tree.

I'm seriously troubled by Guy Kawasaki's claim that organizations should "create" community. I'm also troubled by Guy's assertion that organizations should "task" someone with "building" community. It's impossible to create community, and a single person certainly can't build it.

I believe a better choice of terms would be "cultivate." I realize that this particular post Guy wrote is a work in progress, so I hope he'll take this suggestion to heart: I would assert that the only thing organizations can do to "create" community is provide an environment suitable for community to self-organize. Cultivating community is like growing a tree. I can't make the tree grow, I can only put a seed in the soil and provide the conditions it needs to grow: Water it, keep it warm and give it sunlight.

For point #9, related to my thoughts above, I would offer this: "Get out of the way." Meaning that once you've set the conditions necessary for community to self organize, take a step back and let it grow by itself. This is paradoxical to -- but not incompatible with -- the fact that the community needs a "champion."

Yes, the community needs at least one person to tend the grounds, but the community will suffer if s/he participates too much in the community. Check in on the community frequently -- at least every other day -- but fight the urge to interject on every post, comment, or what-have-you. The best contributors to the community are the people who have chosen to join it, not those who provided the conditions necessary for community to evolve.

The best point in Guy's post is #2: Identify the thunderlizards. I blogged about this a few weeks ago, and I still think that tapping into existing communities is a far better option than trying to "create" your own.

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Rick Johnston, CAE said...

I agree with most of your points, Ben, but not your title premise. Associations have an obligation to build communities, not just cultivate them. That doesn't mean "build them and they will come." We both know that they need to grow organically.

Just as a developer builds a new community and markets it to prospective owners/members, associations need to build and market new communities. The builder does not control the final nature of that community. Those that buy the houses will build a close relationships or not. But the builder still plays an important role. It's not enough to just build the houses. We need to organnize communities in ways that will appeal to our constituents and then nuture them. If you don't provide appropriate leadership to "prime the pump" many opportunites for great communities will be missed.

I have certainly seen robust communities that grew spontaneously. But I have seen others that floundered for a long time until the association stimulated conversations that generated sufficient interest to become self-sustaining.

Ben said...

Communities are self-forming: It's an opt-in list. In your analogy, the planner hasn't built community, s/he has created an environment for a community to organize. In exactly the same way, organizations can only create the conditions necessary for community to evolve. I hold to my assertion that communities can't be created, so we will have to agree to disagree. When someone says they (or their company) built a community, it suggests to me that they have little understanding of how communities form. By realizing that communities form from the bottom up, associations stand a much better chance of creating the necessary conditions for community to evolve.

Jay Karen said...

Ben - you're my new hero. Love the blogging, Flickr, etc.

After reading the posts, I agree that communities cannot be created. Our job as association execs is to keep a watchful eye on what communities have the best potential for growth and cultivation. We've had great success in providing tools and solutions for a community and getting out of the way, and great failure when we tried building a community because we wanted to put a label on a certain type of member. They let us know pretty quickly by not responding that this community didn't exist - or at least not within our association. In this example, we have about 1,000 private clubs in our association - but there are two other associations that exclusively service private club managers. Thus, they didn't look to us for any more community. Sounds like they're communitied-out. I'm doing more listening and watching for communities that members tell us need cultivating. I'm struggling with one right now - some staff want to "create" a community for "next generation" owners of golf courses. I cannot put my finger on what that exactly means - younger folks at golf courses who want to own a golf course one day? How do we define young? Do we? Is it just anyone who wants to or plans to own a golf course in the future? We happen to have a handful of folks who come to our annual meeting, who are children of golf course owners - but these children help run the business. I'm sure the plan is one day for the children to be the primary owner/operator for the business. We've had two cocktail receptions the last two years for "next generation owners," and they turn out has been terrible, but the interest from the few folks is high. They like socializing and talking with other children and next-generation folks. It all got started when one owner's child (30 something years old) thought NGCOA should cultivate/create/build this community - so we have tried a few receptions at our annual meeting, but no real effort of cultivation yet. We're struggling internally whether or not to cultivate this group. Is it worth our time and effort? To go along with your tree analogy, should we water this one or move on to one that might be more fruitful for the association?

Ben said...

Wow, great comment, Jay. I agree with you 100%. We have to be looking out for communities that are organizing and find ways to participate.