Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The hardest phase: the coalescing phase in communities

A segment of a social networkImage via Wikipedia

In a lot of my consultancy work I use a social learning theory- about the functioning and growth of communities of practice. Even when people don't use the term community, but online network, platform, alliance, whatever. As long as learning is one of the goals. Every consultancy is different though- I find it hard to work with blue print materials because every situation is so distinct.

I can discern a red line in my work nevertheless. It is that people tend to underestimate the social capital side of online communities or online platforms. When you look at vibrant online exchanges, it may look as simple as inviting a lot of people by email to sign up, or announcing a new initiative in other online spaces. But this frequently leads to disappointments and leaves people wondering why it works for other online communities but not for their network.

So what are the challenges in the coalescing phase (the phase which follows the first phase when initiators have come together, defined the purpose, a platform has been built and sometimes an official launch has been organised)? I like the chapter in the book Cultivating communities of practice which outlines the following challenges:
  • To balance the need to develop relationships between members and trust against the need to demonstrate (practical) value
  • To keep the energy level up after a big launch event when everyone goes back to 'normal business'
  • To get members to share 'thorny' issues when there is not yet a high level of trust..
  • To stimulate private conversations (nothing wrong with those!) yet at the same time bringing private topics into the public community space
It is not an easy phase for coordinators /facilitators but it may help if they are aware of these issues and do not underestimate the art that goes into stewarding connections and knowledge in this phase (where they may feel not enough is happening).... And if the basics are not right- you might be working against the tide.
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Marco said...

I agree with you, Joitske, that "people tend to underestimate the social capital side of online communities" and also that it may help to know the challenges of the "coalescing phase" outlined in the Wenger book of 2002.
At this point the coordinator knows the "WHY" and the "WHAT"; but in my experience the third element is even more challenging: the "HOW". For example: "HOW to keep the energy level up after a big launch event ..."?

Joitske said...

Hi Marco, I like the way you've put it, the how needs to crystallize.. coordinators have a lot of how questions and may feel insecure indeed about the how!