Sharp Responses to Flat Communities

I’ve often written here about the concept of emergence, or the appearance of high-level patterns and structure as the result of many unplanned and undirected low-level activities. I believe that emergence is central in explaining the power, novelty, and potential of Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0; it’s what keeps large repositories of digital content from becoming hard to navigate, analyze, and use. Emergence underpins Google’s PageRank search algorithm, tag clouds, prices in prediction markets, and other useful digital resources.

But is it essential?  Can an online platform be valuable to its members even if it doesn’t clearly display emergence? By the definition I proposed:

Enterprise 2.0 is the use of emergent social software platforms within companies, or between companies and their partners or customers.

Social software enables people to rendezvous, connect or collaborate through computer-mediated communication and to form online communities. (Wikipedia’s definition).

Platforms are digital environments in which contributions and interactions are globally visible and persistent over time.

Emergent means that the software is freeform, and that it contains mechanisms to let the patterns and structure inherent in people’s interactions become visible over time.

Freeform means that the software is most or all of the following:

  • Optional
  • Free of up-front workflow
  • Egalitarian, or indifferent to formal organizational identities
  • Accepting of many types of data

The use of platforms that don’t include mechanisms for emergence such as links and tags doesn’t fully qualify as Enterprise 2.0.

This might be too harsh. For one thing, it excludes a lot of popular online resources such as bulletin boards, discussion groups, Q&A forums, and the comments section of blogs and other websites. These are all platforms on which a community builds up content over time. Such platforms fail a standard test of emergence because their content is essentially undifferentiated —  there aren’t obvious ways for the cream to rise to the top. Some try to differentiate content by asking users to rate contributions, or contributors (Amazon does both of these). But for the most part these are flat communities.

Does this mean they’re not valuable?  Absolutely not. When I have a technical question about a piece of gear that’s on the fritz, or when I’m data gathering about a prospective purchase I almost always find myself going through the content of a flat community on the Web. And I almost always find what I’m looking for, usually just by perusing what’s already there (My browser’s word search facility helps a great deal with this, even though it’s not particularly sophisticated.). I’ve rarely needed to ask a question myself; someone’s asked it before me. Flat communities are still very useful communities.

As Tom Davenport has pointed out, they’re not really new.  The Usenet discussion system, for example, originated in 1979 and lots of websites had community features well before we started adding ‘2.0’ to everything.

So is there anything new or interesting to say about flat online communities? They seem like no-brainers for companies who are interested in better, deeper, and more frequent interactions with their employees, customers, suppliers, and other partners (and doesn’t this mean all companies?). The hosts and members of these communities will receive value even if full-fledged emergence doesn’t happen. They’re technically trivial to set up. And companies like Cisco have been saying for a while now how much customers love them, and how much money, time, and frustration they save.

And yet they’re the rule, rather than the exception. I was talking a little while back with some people at a very large logistics company that was thinking about how to use IT to help it stay on top of the tangle of requirements dictating what documentation is required to ship from country A to country B. These requirements can be different for each country pair, and are constantly in flux. The company itself struggled to stay on top of them, and they were acutely aware that their customers were frequently bewildered.

I asked them if their website, which was excellent and user-friendly in many ways, had a community section similar to Cisco’s where customers could contribute their knowledge and ask and answer questions. They replied that it had nothing of the sort. I asked them why not, and got back an answer that I interpreted as "some people pretty high up in the company think that would be a bad idea."

I mentally filed this as an example of particularly unenlightened leadership. I learned better this past summer when I taught in HBS’s Delivering Information Services executive education program. We were discussing the benefits of Enterprise 2.0, and one of the participants described the simple, flat community his company had established on their website earlier in the year. He talked about how much it had reduced the cost to serve customers, and how helpful they were to each other (the community was only open to current customers.). 

I asked whether anyone had used the platform to badmouth the company, and he replied that there had been one instance of sharply-worded criticism. He said, however, that he was happy to learn about this displeasure sooner rather than later, and that it hadn’t poisoned the community in any way.

I then thought to ask "Why did you only set up this community within the past year? I imagine you’ve had a website for some time now —  why wasn’t this community in place a long time ago?" 

"Well," he replied, "our previous leadership wasn’t really comfortable with the idea. We got a new CEO a year ago, and he led the effort to build this community. We got a lot of resistance from some people, particularly our legal counsel, but our CEO really wanted to do it. We put disclaimers at the top of every page so people know that the content does not come from us, and we haven’t gotten into any trouble yet."

I then asked the group of about 80 participants (from a huge range of organizations —  big and small, domestic and international, public and private sector) "How many of us work in organizations that are like this gentleman’s used to be—  resistant or hostile to the idea of hosting a customer community?" About two thirds of the people raised their hands; many did so emphatically.

As I’ve stressed before, an E2.0 philosophy of "If we build it, they will come" is unlikely to succeed. But a philosophy that’s hostile to building it in the first place really has no chance. I’m honestly not sure where this hostility comes from —  if it’s rooted in concrete fears of a lawsuit, more abstract fears of a loss of control, or something else.

If you have any insight on this, please share it with us. Why are online communities so often so frightening? And when, if ever, are the fears warranted? I have so far seen virtually no evidence, and heard no stories, that corporate digital communities of practice blow up in the faces of those who host them. Am I missing something?