Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Community Perspective

[Originally posted 11/17/09 in my work blog, but it still rings true today]

It’s amazing how restricting the amount of space you have to express a concept crystalizes what is truly important about that idea. Recently, in my ‘community’ Twitter list, Holly Seddon asked a very good question which helped give me one of those ‘A-ha’ moments:

‘In one word, what should using an online community feel like or give you?’

I loved the challenge of coming up with a single word to describe a key benefit to participating in community. After some reflection, the word that popped into my head was ‘perspective’. When communities are functioning at their peak (and I think this is true even of ‘development’ communities), one of the most powerful things you can glean from your participation is the perspective of one or more of the other community members.

Being able to look at business problems, source code issues, or any other medium within a community from a different angle is incredibly powerful. As an engineer, I used to get some of my most inspired ideas from listening and reading what others in discussion forums were posting. If you have a specific problem, a direct approach to soliciting help from your community gives you (sometimes) multiple different ideas & perspectives on your issue. Throwing these thoughts into the mix as you work toward a solution can be an invaluable step in the problem solving process.

There are a lot of reasons why people or companies start communities, but I believe a large portion of those reasons can be traced back to the need to get additional different perspectives – developers looking for ideas, companies looking for consumer input, social groups looking to connect with other like-minded individuals. I’ll admit that not everyone in the corporate world always understands this – mainly because asking for and reflecting on a different perspective requires the kind of humility that some companies (and even some governments) don’t always possess.

We’ve all participated in groups where we’ve felt our opinions didn’t matter, and I’m willing to bet you probably disengaged pretty quickly if that’s the experience you encountered. I urge companies and their individual employees to strongly consider this when setting up your own internal or external communities. Ask yourself the question: ‘Is this a place where I’d want to participate – is my perspective going to be welcomed and celebrated?’. If the answer is ‘no’, it’s time to go back to the drawing board in the plans for building out that community. If you are already participating in a well-oiled community, remember to appreciate the different perspectives you get – even the ones you might not necessarily agree with.