This post, in various iterations, has been on my mind (and in my moleskine) for quite some time. I thought about it after #bfab, I was almost overwhelmed by it at NASPA 2012, and I alluded to a lot of this in one of the last #sachat discussions. Since when is community such a dirty word?
As a huge fan of people (meeting them, engaging with them, sharing in their stories, sometimes pushing them far out of their comfort zone), it always bothers me to hear people talk about feeling like they are excluded or ostracised from what they perceive to be an elitist ‘community’ where only the loudest or most influential are heard and valued. While these conversations seem to have grown out of online interactions, I quickly made connections between the perceived feelings of virtual isolation and those same feelings at a large national convention. In both cases, we champion the development of community as an important benefit of participation. In both environments, we encourage participation, dialogue and engagement. You get out what you put in.
Here’s where it gets tricky for me. The term ‘community’ carries with it an assumption of belonging. I’ve seen tweets about ‘joining’ #sachat (as if there’s some test to pass or initiation to go through), I have conversations with people about the advantages of participating in their professional community.
Community as an ‘in group’ must then, by default, mean that there is an ‘out group’. How can we define membership in something without simultaneously defining, and creating, what it means to not be included?
While I was working to make sense of all this, I came across an article entitled Look Beyond the Team: It’s About the Network. In the article, Jon Katzenbach argues against the assumption that creating teams is the most effective means for problem solving. This small group, he argues, has a beginning and an end. The work, and the group itself, is finite.
In it’s place, Jon calls for the creation of networks – “[a] larger, informal, loosely defined group of people with various expertise …”. This network is an important, and in today’s knowledge economy essential way of driving the conversations we want to have and pushing for the change we want to happen.
Within this network, we build distributed responsibility for a collective purpose.
Our networks are not limited. They do not discriminate by job title, level of expertise or even interest. As we build connections and create networks, we form bonds over our lived experiences and widen the impact of our ideas and actions. One thought, a few words, can create a powerful chain reaction (for good or for not so good). We then, collectively, live the consequences. Your experience is now linked to mine. We, together, live the impact.
I’ve been very careful in some of my new ventures (most noticeably the #saass chats) to not use the word community. There is no qualification for membership here – you can work full time in assessment or have a passing interest in survey design (and if you do, I want to talk to you) and still participate in our conversation. I have intentionally made my message be about ‘building your assessment network’.
In a culture often hyper-focused on individual responsibility and achievement, the notion of community is certainly appealing as a space to find support and validation. The danger, however, is that the process of creating these groups preys upon the individual need for collective belonging (that one notion sounds like a thesis topic doesn’t it?).
Building your network, however, means continually crafting a web of relationships, not only ending back with you but building branches, strands (any other nature metaphor other than trees and spiders) to connect others who may never had the chance to learn from each other. Within your network, you may never know what sort of lollipop moments you create (tip of the hat to my friend Drew Dudley for coining this one).
Let’s flip the whole idea of community. Let’s build networks. How far-reaching will your impact be?
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