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Characteristics of Emergent Communities

April 15, 2009

Other Posts in This Series

XYZ Axis of Community Modeling


A few weeks back, I wrote a post about a new way to think about community through a lens of emergent, collaborative, and formal elements.  This was based on a post by Harold Jarche and Jay Cross.  In the first post, I discussed how the model could be used not only to describe and “type” communities, but also how it could streamline community development and design.  The basic idea is that since certain community types share common characteristics, they should also share a significant number of best practices, risks, and overall strategies, particularly those related to design, management, moderation, and ROI.


In this post, we’re going to explore the common characteristics of emergent communities or emergent initiatives.  (The distinction here between communities and initiatives may seem minor, but in all of these community types, I think it’s important to remember that we can use them in targeted ways to solve specific point issues or as “standing” models that are designed to persist over time.)  An emergent community is one primarily designed to solve new problems or articulate new solutions.  Almost every community will have some emergent characteristics — people by nature are idea machines and will almost always think of new ways to perform even routine tasks.  Give  them a platform to share these ideas and many of them will.

The difference between a community with “emergent characteristics” and a true “emergent community” is mostly a matter of degree.  In true emergent communities, the insights, new ideas, innovations of the community are either the main point or central to the stated business purposes.  In communities with emergent elements, these contributions may be beneficial, but they are not required for the community to deliver value.

Handy Dandy Diagram

Emergent Diagram

Emergent Diagram

Example Communities or Initiatives

If you have been following the social media space for a fair bit of time, you may already be familiar with some examples of emergent communities initiatives:

Dell’s IdeaStorm
Why Emergent?  Dell uses an idea tool to enable customers and the public to submit ideas.  These ideas are then vetted by the crowd through votes that aggregate into overall rankings.  The main point of the site is to gather ideas related to Dell products and services.  One of the more notable successes of this effort was the development of a Linux laptop, a product idea Dell initially resisted.  Based on the popularity of this idea in the community, Dell eventually reversed their position and had a very successful launch.

Cisco’s iZone and iPrize
Why Emergent?  In the last two years, Cisco has changed the way it captures innovative ideas, or as one executive put it, “Cisco has innovated innovation.”  Through a wiki model, Cisco asked employees to share ideas around new products and services Cisco could offer.  This was the iZone project.  Over the course of 18 months, 400 ideas were submitted.  Through vetting and collaboration, these 400 ideas were eventually narrowed to just nine.  Three of these ultimately went into production and collectively represent over $3 billion in market opportunity.

Last year, Cisco started a similar initiative, but as a public competition.  This time they offered up a $250,000 prize for the best idea.  The winner was a team led by a German graduate student, and the idea was about managing electric grids via Cisco technology.  Cicso plans to invest as much as $10 billion dollars in this idea over the coming years.

Why Emergent?  Everything about this community is emergent.  It’s a spin-off of an approach by Eli Lily to connect Seekers and Solvers with the added twist that Seekers can be people outside the company.  Seekers post problems or challenges they are facing and offer a monetary award for solving the issue.  Not surprisingly, Solvers provide answers.

To date, millions of awards have been granted and hundreds of otherwise unsolvable problems have been solved, in many cases by individuals who either solved them years ago in parallel or related lines of research, or who simply have a unique perspective that helps them see the problem differently.  The solution to cleaning up a significant amount of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill, for example, came from a cement truck operator who suggested that the oil could be vibrated while it was moving through the extaction pipe to prevent it from solidifying on the way up.

The common thread in each of these cases, the main purpose of the community or the initiative, is to identify new ideas, new products, new solutions etc…

Evaluation Checklist

If you aren’t sure whether you need to build an emergent community, you can start by answering the questions below.  Score each question on a scale of 1-10 and then averge the results.  When percentages are called for, round up and then use the tens value as the answer (if you score 20%, use 2 as the response; if 40%, then use 4 etc…)

  1. To what extent is your business dependent on the creation of new ideas, new processes, new products, or new services to drive sales?  (10%, 20% etc…)
  2. How much of your organization’s intellectual effort is expending in solving novel challenges or problems?
  3. How much of your organization’s intellectual effort is spent creating new solutions to existing problems or new problems?
  4. What percentage of your organization’s best practices are based on principles and theory (as opposed to concrete steps and rote processes)?
  5. What percentage of your best practices emerge “from the trenches”?
  6. To what extent do you rely on knowledge sharing among diverse groups either within or outside the company walls?
  7. When you think about a core contributor within your organization, how much of his or her expertise is a result of superior synthesis, invention, or sense-making sorts of skills?
  8. For the majority of your core initiatives, how important, on a scale of 1-10, is a diversity of perspective or expertise in achieving your project goals?
  9. In terms of succession planning and talent identification, what percentage of your existing “experts” and leaders grew into these roles as a result of the admiration and esteem of their peers?
  10. To what extent does coordination and issue resolution happen through the ad hoc assembly of networked teams or individuals (versus through formal hierarchies)?

How did you do?  While by no means a perfect measure, I’d suggest the following:

  • If you averaged a 7 or above, you should focus on designing an emergent sort of community.
  • If you averaged between 5 and 7, you have a strong need to account for emergent practices in your design, but you may have a more blended sort of solution.
  • If you averaged below a 5, emergent practices should not be a central tenent of design and may instead be better addressed as necessary through targeted or episodic initiatives when circumstances change.

Next time, we’ll address examples and characteristics defining collaborative communties.

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