Got to be good looking ’cause he’s so hard to see

He roller coaster
He got early warning
He got muddy water
He one Mojo filter
He say one and one and one is three
Got to be good looking
Cause he’s so hard to see
Come together right now
Over me

Come Together, The Beatles, 1969

Calcutta is a city of communities, something that becomes very visible during Durga Puja, a riotous festival held in the autumn. Every community, called a para, builds its own shrine to the goddess Durga, idolised in clay. That shrine becomes the centrepiece of the festivities throughout the six-day holiday, culminating, on the last day, in the ritual immersion of the idol in the waters of the Hooghly, following a frenetic parade through the city. It’s loud, it’s colourful, it’s very crowded, and it’s great fun. An experience not to be missed. When I was a child it also meant I was given new clothes and festival sweets, something I was very partial to. [Bengali sweets are something else, if you haven’t tried them then you haven’t lived].



In those days house ownership was rare except for the very rich, rents were often fixed for life, and job mobility was low. So everyone tended to stay within the neighbourhood, and community spirit was strong without being particularly visible. There was an active neighbourhood watch, an outcome of that peculiar, often Eastern, trait of people who sit on the side of the road and watch the world go by.


Geography has always been a strong driver towards the forming of community, as has religion or culture or for that matter any special interest. Communities tend to form around shared roots and experiences, interests and aspirations, a tendency exhibited in virtual as well as in flesh-and-blood communities. If you want to delve deeper into the topic of virtual communities, I would strongly recommend the writings of Howard Rheingold, Amy Jo Kim, Steven Johnson, Yochai Benkler, John Seely Brown and John Hagel. All underpinned by a healthy dose of The Cluetrain Manifesto and its writers Chris Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger and Rick Levine. I’ve read their stuff; I’ve met them; I’ve spent time with them; with some, I’ve even had the privilege of seeing them regularly and getting to know them. They’ve all been significant influences on my thinking about communities in general; my thanks to each and every one of them.


When the purpose of the community is driven by shared experiences or aspirations, it adds a certain permanence to the entity. Interests and aspirations change slowly, if at all; roots and experiences, by definition, are matters of fact and shouldn’t be vulnerable to change. So for the most part communities can be considered to be permanent, or at the very least long-term in essence. That long-term nature facilitates the working of the community, since people get to know each other, get used to each other, understand the conventions and rituals of the community, share the goals and ideals.

Around thirty years ago, I started noticing that this permanency wasn’t necessarily an attribute of all communities. It started with my interest in sport in general, and in cricket, soccer and golf in particular. Club form didn’t always translate to country form; there were often conflicts between the needs of one and the other, which meant that training together wasn’t easy. And teams of people who hadn’t played together that often couldn’t just turn on the collective sparkle on demand. I saw this happen most often in soccer, when collections of very talented people produced far less than their perceived ability. It was less obvious in cricket, and I suspected that it was because international cricket teams toured regularly, thereby resolving the conflict between club and country for the period of the tour. Golf was a different ball game altogether: the camaraderie shown in the Ryder Cup stood out as an example of how people who hadn’t played together often could still gel as a team. I reasoned that it was largely because they still played relatively solo games; fourballs and foursomes needed collaboration in strategy and tactics, but execution was still an individual responsibility.

I began to think of national teams as transient communities, coming together for a specific short-term purpose and then disbanding once the purpose has been achieved. And I began to think about what made them tick. Or not. As time went by, in the early 1990s, the idea of co-opetition began to gather momentum, and examples of companies coming together for specific projects, opportunities, bids, became common. Companies that would collaborate on one bid competed on another, often in parallel. As was the fad at the time, no such phenomenon went unjargonised. So we started seeing the term “the holonic organisation” to describe this temporary coming together of strange bedfellows.

A few years later, I joined what was then Dresdner Kleinwort Benson. And again, perhaps because I’d begun to become a transient-community hammer, I saw transient community nails everywhere. The M&A department was a closed community, separated from others by formal “Chinese walls”. Whenever an advisory opportunity arose, a “pitch team” was assembled, drawing from a plethora of disciplines, often including people who were not part of the M&A department. When that happened, the outsiders were brought in “over the wall”; once the assignment was completed, they returned whence they came. A classic transient community, one that operated with skill and at speed.

That really intrigued me, coming on the back of my earlier observations on variations in levels of performance. How come these clusters of people worked so well together, despite their different origins and interests? That was about fifteen years ago, and I’ve had the opportunity to study the phenomenon more closely since.

A few years ago, when reading The Big Shift and The Power Of Pull, I began to visualise creation spaces, the places where collaboration curves were encouraged and fomented, as enablers of transient community. The hammer-meets-nail problem began to get worse: more recently, when I delved into Gartner’s “extreme collaboration” model, I couldn’t help but keep seeing transience and community Siamese in their twin-like-ness.

I came to the conclusion that traditional communities, be they flesh-and-blood or digital, were at their core permanent or near-permanent in nature, and often single-purpose. This model has served us well in the past, and, in many respects, will continue to do so in future. But it’s not the only model in town.

Spurred on by the accelerating pace of change and increasing complexity, there is a growing need for multidisciplinary communities, inherently transient, with membership drawn from communities with diverse purposes, coming together for a single relatively short-term objective.

Transient communities. Using the parlance of the Big Shift, I started thinking of them as “flow” communities rather than “stocks” communities, dynamic rather than static in nature.

The more I’ve thought about them, the more I’ve observed instances in practice, the more I’ve realised that there are some core principles that make such “flow” communities successful.

And here’s where I’m at with those principles:

A flow community comes together to solve a specific class of problem, one that cannot be solved by traditional communities.

The class of problem is characterised by the need for multiple and disparate skills, know-how and discipline, usually across diverse cultures and geographies. But those are not the core characteristics.

The core characteristic of a flow community is that of having to align a complex array of purposes within the community, derived from and represented by the diversity of membership.

Flow communities tend to come together for a finite time, and then disband. Entry to, and egress from, the community, needs to be kept simple yet respect the separations called for by the diversity of membership mentioned earlier.

When they come together, the members of the community “leave their titles at the door”; for the community to execute successfully, this is what makes the difference. Disparate people explicitly ejecting their bag and baggage in order to fulfil a short-term purpose that has the support of their originating communities, despite contention, sometimes even conflict, in purpose.

As a result, the behaviours inherent in traditional communities (which, particularly in the enterprise context, often resemble company departments or groups) are minimised. These behaviours, very tribal in nature, tend to replicate the very reasons that the problem couldn’t be solved in the first place, and must be explicitly excluded from the flow community.

Lacking the permanency of interest and purpose, flow communities need to resolve interpersonal trust at speed and at scale. Tools must exist to simplify and ease the process: of finding the right person or people; of validating that person’s reputation and skill “by inspection”; of discovering, in real time, what is happening in the community; of providing feedback effectively.

Most importantly, the flow community respects the boundaries of the community for the duration of the assignment. People can be invited into the community; people can leave the community; everything happens under the Chatham House Rule.

There’s a lot more I can say on the subject, but I’ll stop for now and await your comments, in whatever style or channel you choose. I try and contain my posts to around the 1500 word mark.

9 thoughts on “Got to be good looking ’cause he’s so hard to see”

  1. The reaction of online CEOs to PRISM, clearly stock valuation is tied to privacy. Post PRISM data privacy now emerges as a prized competitive weapon of collaboration in community systems. The Chatham House Rule somehow needs designing into enterprise systems (easier said than done).

  2. I advise thinking of “community” as a provisional term, since we lack no better one for an association of people, not all related by blood, who interact over some period of time. Arguments and anxieties over the way new developments were changing community are probably age-old, but certainly sharpened into a discourse with Tonnies and his concerns that the transition to modernity in the 19th century — industrialism, urbanism, capitalism — was tipping the balance of human intercourse from gemeinschafft (community) to gesellschafft (society). Every one of the early social scientists — Weber, Marx, Durkheim — shared a concern over the way what had been regarded as community was being changed.

    I say this in order to suggest that this discussion would do well to avoid that rat-hole and stipulate that new means of communication and transportation catalyze changes in human social organization, and not all of the changes are for the better. Today, the different polls of this argument could be represented by Sherry Turkle and Robert Putnam at one end and Barry Wellman and Zynep Tufekci on the other.

    So what is the difference between a group of people who would say that there are community elements to their mutual association, and those who would not make such a claim? Is there a minimum set of ingredients? I think we could agree on a few core characteristics. I believe there has to be a minimum level of civility if the members are able to mount effective collective action (beyond talking and talking to each other) – Usenet and Slashdot are certainly existence proofs of long-lived conversations that can be far from civil. I think there has to be some minimum amount of trust for trust among strangers to become more transitive (I don’t know X, but I know Y, and Y trusts X, so I am willing to grant provisional trust). There has to be some ongoing communication.

    However, as Elinor Ostrom demonstrated with her study of institutions for collective action, understanding the underlying design and dynamics of successful and failed institutions might be necessary but isn’t sufficient to actually make such an institution work.

    Anyone who has tried it knows that it’s not easy to cultivate enough critical mass for a virtual community to exist for more than say a dozen people for more than say a few months.

    What could be learned by induction by beginning with listing flow communities that work.

  3. That’s an amazing trip down memory lane, JP. I recall trying to build the first transient communities (using Lotus Notes in the late 90ies) for client consulting teams. Email was the overriding principle and few teams dared to shift client communications to these shared spaces. Later came traditional communities (we called them practice communities), that became a staple of the (static) intranet. They were static due to the underlying (inflexible) web content publishing processes and discussion forums. Not much has changed in the corporate world since then (except for a few social collaboration tools), but boy, have communities on the internet taken of. I’m on a few G+ communities that are extremely fluid (it feels like going out for a swim into the stream every morning). Interestingly, some are now trying to find a common purpose in creating a permanent artifact (e.g. we a trying a collaborative bookmaking project in the Conversation Community [1]). Communities are evolving into something very different than they set out to do many years ago. Thank you for sending us back and giving us a glimpse ahead, JP.


  4. JP thanks for a useful and philosophical post about a deep interest of mine I riffed on here []. Here are the thoughts it sparked for me. I create, manage and scale flow-type online teams and communities while advising orgs on social business. There’s a lot of mentoring in the things you touch here because enterprise teams rarely understand emergence or collaboration. I agree with Howard that “community” is a provisional term because we really need another one for virtual or flow communities. I’ll posit that “communities” can exist around people are *are* together or who *do* together. Notably, both involve elements of shared destiny and therefore commitment. “Be” communities I associate with the physical kind; since there is less mobility, reputation has an immutable quality as you imply, hierarchies, titles, etc. However, “do” communities feature emergent organization. To be most effective, the founders focus on creating “sacred” spaces with explicit rules and that align with the purpose of the community (i.e. Chatham). Obviously “sacred” here is used in the abstract. Sometimes strong founders and mission do this implicitly, but when you are trying to create a do community for an explicit purpose, choose rituals and rules that communicate to people that they are in a sacred space for an overall purpose. Also, having a big “list” of rules about trust, etc. is far less effective than showing the rules through interactions. For example, exceptions or violations are excellent opportunities to show the rules in action and strengthen the community because people note conflict above any other event in the community. When I mentor people, I show them how to lead through interacting.

    Most of the groups client teams create have a high percentage of volunteers, so designing roles that are feasible and exciting personally and professionally is key. Design can be implicit or explicit, but assembling the right people and having a template for how they can interact to challenge and/or please each other is often helpful. Obviously these things are “good enough” concepts; getting the right people and letting them work their magic is best. Cultures determine how much explicit mentoring/hand-holding is required.

    I find that shared destiny is critical in all group collaborations; otherwise people won’t jell. In the enterprise context, I mentor community managers to focus at least implicitly on personal and professional destiny when inviting people to get involved. Outcomes can be helpful/gratifying to contributors professionally and/or personally. I find that clients are still getting used to the reality of the free agency world, so they don’t think about appealing to the free agent that lurks inside any “employee” with any awareness these days. ;¬)

  5. @Clive learning how to scale trust is important. Technology has a role to play, but far more important is the coming together of shared principles and values, even if purposes are less convergent. And yes, this needs to be part of how systems are architected in the enterprise and beyond

  6. @howard thank you for that; in a separate mail list I have been lurking on, we have had discussions about “black hole” terms that suck the energy away from the conversation. I will take your advice to heart; I have some examples of flow communities in action that I can share with you next time we meet, or perhaps even as a follow-up to this post.

  7. @joachim thank you Joachim; I must admit that I haven’t yet experienced real value from G+ as yet, I will read the links you have provided.

  8. @christopher thanks for this. I guess I am still trying to differentiate between cases of traditional collaboration and those where shared purpose is not to be taken for granted; let me work more on that concept in a follow up post and perhaps you can comment on that.

  9. Was trying to track down the guy I spoke to at the Amplify Expo, perhaps that was you? Anyhow we spoke briefly about gift economies and to give my two cents I believe gift giving is the glue between people in communities. Without it, or without any degree of of gift giving, all we have is a bunch of people associated with each other in some way. I imagine that gift giving in parts of the world where we don’t have such a strong attachment to ownership is like second nature, so perhaps in Calcutta that fits with the free flowing conception and nature of communities there?

    I know at work, what happens in really good teams is people share their time and knowledge with each other. We usually call that collaboration or co-operation but I’m tending towards the idea that it’s actually gift giving. What I mean is – in a strong collaborative team people will stop working on their own designated tasks and help with others’ tasks multiple times throughout the day. When that happens it’s occurs in the spirit of a gift, we do it to help our colleagues, we do it to contribute to a higher ideal, but not because we expect to get something back. When it’s done in that spirit, team work is free flowing and organisations thrive I believe.

    If collaboration functioned in a purely barter-based economy, instead of help, we’d be timing our help given, dissecting our help into more or less valuable chunks, perhaps even charging interest on our help-time, so we’d give 10 mins of help, in exchange for 15 mins help back etc. So collaboration, in fact any team in my opinion is completely unworkable if it functions as a barter-based economy. I reckon too in order to exist in our barter / financial based economy, an organisation has to have a gift economy in place – and the degree of which determines how successful that organisation is. What I’m curious to see happen is changing this practice of giving from something that is implicit to something that is explicit within an organisation. Well, I guess it’s wait and see how our little project pans out :)

Let me know what you think