7 forces that influence community building

CommunitiesIt’s hard to question the superiority of networks for activities such as collaborative learning (type “communities of practice“), experimentation with new cultural approaches, idea generation, or to mobilize in favor of some collective claim.

But what happens when the challenge is to put many people to work together to achieve certain results respecting deadlines and costs, and also do it by cultivating an ongoing relationship . I’m talking about “productive” and “stable” networks, that is, a reticulate model without organic links, which poses work for projects within deadlines and that the result can effectively overcome the company.

In my experience, these conditions can only be fulfilled if we conceive networks of higher order, more than “ordinary networks“, and therefore we would have to call them differently, to distinguish them from those based on weak ties structures, which are good to encourage creative and random connections, but not to serve goods and services, or manage complex projects.

I like to call those networks-of-higher-order as ‘communities’, and what makes them different from a regular network is that members get a sense of belonging, which helps the “centripetal forces” that promote group cohesion and stability have a greater net intensity than the “centrifugal forces” that match more with the selfish logic. Indeed, robust communities are those which learn to manage the tension between the socializing and individualistic axes.

In any case, what I say is that it is difficult to get a cohesive, stable and productive network without sense of belonging, and that sense of belonging should not be seen as an act of resignation so painful, or assume that a higher social entity transcends people as individuals.

The good news is that healthy communities are those in which the sense of belonging is chosen as a voluntary choice, because group members really want to be part of that network, share common concerns and also a vital sense of purpose. And what is more important, that bond is forged on an inescapable principle: low barriers to exit, that is: no strings attached, to be free to leave whenever you want without a significant emotional and/or material cost.

The latter is crucial for a genuine sense of belonging, but that does not mean we are excused from making certain sacrifices. I don’t know any community that works well, perform and be productive, built only from a selfish view.

Some sacrifices must be done, but minimal. The essence of a network is to generate and exploit synergies, and these are not produced by spontaneous generation, but require a process of building trust and commitment, which requires generating structure, encourage interactions and, of course, moderate egos.

A productive community cannot be the mere sum of individuals. Under certain circumstances you can find a healthy middle ground between “I” and “we.” And of course, if you want a “stable” network, that (voluntary) sense of belonging can function as centripetal force for the connection to be continued.

But … what are these “centripetal” and “centrifugal” forces that influence the success or failure of communities? The table below is an attempt to summarize the effect of both forces in creating a productive and stable community:

Centripetal forces (“Build comms”)

Centrifugal forces (“Fracture comms”)

1) Trust, affection and harmony among partners 1) Lack of emotional affinity. ‘Chemistry problems’ among partners
2) Social vocation, culture of sharing 2) Selfishness, individualism, rejection of compromise, insane need for independence
3) A clear sense of purpose, a shared life project (not just “making money”, but that might be enough reason in some networks/people) 3) Dispersion or disparity of expectations, goals and motivations
4) Structured, visible and accepted leadership (leadership is distributed and it is based on “tractor forces” and several “facilitators”) 4) Anarchy, dilution of roles and responsibilities (no coordination, the structure is expected to emerge by spontaneous generation without effort)
5) Filters and criteria to enter. Exit is free, but not enters. The “who” matter, because the community is a matter of people. 5) Total Free entry, open membership
6) Shared group identity and ethics. There are rules that set (though flexible) limits the vital territory which the community moves. 6) Anarchy, ambiguity, laissez faire, anything goes
7) Complementarity and synergies between skills and abilities of the partners (“we serve each other“) 7) Redundancies and uniformity capabilities (“we seem too, we do the same“)


These forces can give us some clues of where to put the focus on community building. Nothing is black and white, and the relationship is not linear. For example, one could argue that in point-2 individualism is good for the networks as “the collective optimum is constructed from the individual interest“. Also, in point-4 “anarchy” and “emergent systems” introduce freshness and naturalness to the networks, or the “structure” and “leadership” can produce the opposite effect. Equally concerning may be the point-6, where I say that the existence of “rules” will help build network, while the “laissez faire” may generate heavy costs in terms of efficiency.

Of course, the networks are too complex to give absolute recipes, so the impact of these forces on the viability of communities also depends on the intensity. Any of the “centripetal forces” that help build network can have the opposite effect if they are abused, because voluntary sense of belonging is fractured.

Of course, there is always the option to go for more “liquid” ephemeral networks to address specific actions, without any sense of continuity. The connection unit in this case is the projects, changing partners each. You are not interested in stable relationships because it is pure independence your real life project.

Note-1: This post is an edited and shortened version of an article published on the website of eMOTools entitled “Redes [no] empresas y sentido de pertenencia”.

Note-2: The image of the post belongs to the album of adrian_wallett in Flickr

Note-3: Read this post in Spanish (Lee este post en Español)

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  1. Pingback: A Sense of Purpose | Jesuit Networking Project Coordination

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