Designing strong communities

We have a cohort of new, young, management trainee joiners starting work with us in a month or so. They are with us for around six months before they move to their next placement. They won't be working closely with each other but dispersed through the organisation but we think (to be tested), that there's value in them developing a 'strong community'.

What we're looking to establish is a network of people who work collectively in the interests of the whole organisation while they are with us, give ideas and support to each other during the six months, and who will feel drawn to return at the end of their training programme. We're in a market where we are competing for good people and what we have to offer is less of the high salary and glossy kit, and more of the social value and being able to influence and create major organisational transformation through creative, co-operative and collective approaches.

We had a go trying to create the strong community that would create the change we are interested in with the previous cohort but not successfully: hopefully we've learned something so undaunted we are giving it another go. We think we learned three things:

  • The cohort didn't have the skills or incentive to self-organise into a strong community
  • We didn't give them enough (any) guidance on what we were hoping for, our expectations of them and what they could expect from us
  • We didn't intervene to generate activity but waited to see what happened (nothing)

So this time we're being more hands on and directive. (The opposite of what we read millennials want from managers).

But there's still the issue of what makes for a 'strong community' and can they be consciously designed? There's lots of stuff around urban planning that suggests the answer is yes – but that's due, in part, to the way the built environment is configured. We're talking for the most part about a virtual environment but with some face to face meetings.

I thought the American Red Cross example in how they designed a strong virtual community was interesting. The five steps could be relevant if we substituted 'management trainees' for 'public' and 'organisation' for 'company'.

  1. Commitment – How the public views a company's willingness to commit time and resources to building relationships online
  2. Control mutuality – Two-way interaction and control (the company/brand does not have all the control)
  3. Communality – Sharing a concern for one another and similar values, beliefs, and interests
  4. Trust – A company should be seen as believable, competent, reliable, and consistent
  5. Satisfaction – How a company meets its community's needs and exceeds expectations

Another thought provoking blog with good graphics distinguishes between online social networks and online communities arguing that:

The single most important feature that distinguishes a social network from a community is how people are held together on these sites. In a social network, people are held together by pre-established interpersonal relationships, such as kinship, friendship, classmates, colleagues, business partners, etc. The connections are built one at a time (i.e. you connect directly with another user). The primary reason that people join a social networking site is to maintain old relationships and establish new ones to expand their network.

Unlike social networks, communities (both online and offline) are more interesting from a social anthropological perspective, because they often consist of people from all walks of life that seem to have no relationship at all. Yet, as we've learned from history, communities are very robust social structures. So what is it that holds these communities together?

Communities are held together by common interest. It may be a hobby, something the community members are passionate about, a common goal, a common project, or merely the preference for a similar lifestyle, geographical location, or profession.

Various reading around the ideas on strong communities has given us some things to try out and I think we can make a better go at establishing a strong community. Do you have any tips for doing so? Let me know.