The spidergram for getting started with AND evaluating communities

"Technology has fundamentally changed how we can be together!" With this phrase Nancy White started the webinar 'Thinking about online communities using the Digital Habitats Orientation Spidergram', which was held on the 21st February 2012. Nancy: "Technology has enabled us to communicate by distance through skype, bigmarker, e-mail, blogs, discussion groups and other social media tools. Some of them work effective, others are less effective. It depends on the situation. The world of the 'paper and pen' has transformed into a new world of digital tools. That has created a new dynamic on how we communicate in communities. If technology is not working we use paper and pen, other times we use the computer, preferably applications that remind us of the 'paper and pen'." 

Change in technology, can change the interaction
Nancy: "Interactions between people are important. It contributes to the development of the team or network. An interesting thing is that people start with technology where they feel comfortable with. If that is the telephone, they will use that. Nobody likes cool tools except for people who like cool tools. Technology is moving faster than people. However, people cope and will try new technology if it meets their new needs so that they can overcome their fears and resistance. The change in technology, can change the interaction."

According to Nancy, a community is a group of people who share a common interest over a longer period of time. "One meeting is not building a community. This is a 'Transient experience'. A community is about building relationships and small interactions between people. 'Laughter is a good community indicator'. A community is a group of people building identity, creating meaning and getting a sense of belonging. Even if it is 'eating chocolate together' is it a community. When somebody is giving up part of his identity towards the group, it significates a change. It is a community indicator showing that people are willing to invest in each other."

The spidergram: 9 different orientations towards community activities
When Nancy White conducted research with Etienne Wenger and John Smith on the development of different communities and how technology is impacting them, they discovered that communities have different patterns of orientations towards community activities. All of them were impacted by the change of technology. Their findings were published in 'Digital Habitats - stewarding technology for communities'.  They distinguished 9 different orientations, together forming a spidergram.

1. Content, publishing - sharing information about a domain of practise, the availability from information changed from static into dynamic. For example wiki's and blogposts are updated all the time.
2. Open-ended conversations - conversations that continue to rise and fall over a period of time without a clear purpose. This gradually changed from f2f back door talks, to online conversations between invididuals. Chattalks are nowadays a substitute for informal talks at the coffee machine. 
3. Meetings - official gatherings with a specific goal and time frame. Virtual meetings have become more common due to cost reduction and more effective use of time.
4. Projects - interrelated tasks with specific outcomes or products. They are the heartbeats of communities. Projects have a transactional type of building trust with each other. Online tools for team co-operation in doing projects are gradually increasing and are impacting communities on how people co-operate.
5. Access to expertise - learning from experienced practitioners. Important aspect is that communities are only sustainable if the process of knowledge sharing is interactive. If it is one-way transfer of knowledge it will not be sustainable. Communities tend to have a balance between give and take.  Experts need to take the culture and way of working of the community in consideration, including working with social media. 
6. Relationships - getting to know each other. Virtual contacts are complementary to f2f contacts. They are interconnected.
7. Context - private / internally focused or is it externally focused? Social media plays a major role in communication.  Blogpost, youtube, twitter, facebook are social media are regulary used for sharing, awareness raising and public relations.
8. Community cultivation - recruitment, orienting and supporting members, is the community growing?  This is the part that something is shared in common. The change in technology has enabled communities to share their common experiences and joint results on virtual platforms. Examples that help to enable community cultivation are a newsletter, a community discussion platform, a joint website. 
9. Individual participation - enabling members to share their own experience. Today technology provides people with enormous possibilities. 

The top part of the spidergram, orientation 1 to 5, deals about content, publishing and projects; the hardware. The bottuom of the spidergram deals with the social part. Relationships and sense of belonging are important.  Please find more about >>>> Spidergramworksheets

Practical examples in using the spidergram
While comparing the different communities Nancy and her colleagues discovered that most communities scored high on 3 of the 9 orientations, and lower in the others.  All depending on the domain and the purpose of these communities. Some of these had more focus towards individual participation and internal discussion (for example a community with women abused through domestic violence), while others had a need for common sharing and external communication (for example the KM4DEV community who likes to share all their learnings with the outside world). A big community with around 2.500 members might have a low focus on relationships, and higher focus on content. While birdwatchers in Central Park in New York will have a more balanced approach. They want to know about the birds, but also want to get connected with the people who are using the park.

Some orientations in a community can strengthen each other. A project creates content and helps to build relationships. Nancy; "Do, reflect, capture and share. A community can create more momentum when stories between individuals members are captured and published through a website and the newspaper. This is how parents came to know through the Birdwatchers community that Central Park had safe places for children to play. This is what is meant with cultivating the community".  

The interesting thing is that communities change over time. And so do their orientations. The spidergram is a tool which helps to look at patterns, instead of measuring quantitative data. It is a great tool for starting a conversation with community members. Regular moments of evaluation are important. It provides a space for people to reflect and see how much they have accomplished and shared in common over a period of time. Nancy had a wonderful experience in Armenia: "When the donor pulled out of the project, the community members discovered that they had completed so much work with each other and had created value, that they wanted to continue."

Keep the heartbeat going
Three of the twelve participants at the webinar had the opportunity to share and present their spidergram. Case studies about a community around a day care centre (having a virtual discussion platform), a temporary community wrapped around a training (using a Yammer platform) and a starting partnership between NGO's, government and experts (also using a Yammer platform) were shared and analyzed. All of them had in common they were starting or young communities. Nancy: 'New and evolving communities need heartbeats!'  It is similar to a long distance runner. You have to invest a lot of time in the beginning in facilitation and coaching to get the ideal rythm of the heartbeat. New communities have starting projects and more meetings, since they are searching for their optimal heart beat. In more developed communities you find less meetings, but more open ended conversations. A Yammer group will be helpful for a starting community. If you have a small committed group of members, it is easy to follow discussions on the Yammer platform. However, when the group is evolving and growing towards a membership of more than 1,000 members Yammer wil not work anymore. The group needs a new configuration and new virtual tools for co-operation".  

The technology steward plays an important role in this. Nancy: "He/ she is somebody who knows enough about the community, their needs, aspiration, character and knows enough about technology. A community steward is not somebody working at the IT department. Not many IT departments have a technology steward mindset. Technology stewards are people with enough experience of the dynamics of a community to understand its technology needs, and  have enough experience with technology to take leadership in addressing those needs. Stewardship typically includes selecting and configuring technology as well as supporting its use in the practise of the community". More about the spidergram for analyzing online communities read  Digital Habitants stewarding technologies for communities'.

Webinar - Allison Michels from Yammer
The next webinar will take place on the 20th March, 2012 from 15.30 - 17.00 hrs (Amsterdam  - Europe time) about Best practices for internal knowledge sharing with Allison Michels from Yammer.  Subscribe at webinars international experts. 

Other literature recommended for reading:
Prezi presentation about how to start and maintaining online communities (in Dutch)
Spidergram worksheets - Nancy White


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