True communities store memories, not knowledge

Vinh Jones
Oct 1 · 4 min read

I started my career at a small tech startup called Jive Software. We specialized in external online communities and eventually focused on becoming *the* vendor for internal communities. One of the strongest parts of Jive was the resilience of its culture — it survived through multiple leadership changes, a too-soon IPO, multiple layoffs (or “reduction in force,” as our HR teams so fondly called them), and a particularly brutal acquisition by a private equity company. We got some things right and a lot of things wrong, but for better or worse, Jive’s culture and scrappiness stuck around until the very end.

One of my former colleagues recently sent out a group message to a number of us former Jivers with one request: “The CEO at a small French company that I’m working with asked me to explain how Jive’s culture got so strong and stayed that way for so long. I’m pretty sure we’ve all talked about this over and over and I want to get you all’s thoughts.”

At Jive, our founders primarily emphasized one value: No sacred cows. We were allowed to talk about and challenge anything that we’ve done in the past or are currently doing in service making the organization better. Admittedly, we did have one principle that persisted from the very beginning to the very end: Post everything in Brewspace (our internal Jive community). Always.

And so we posted everything in Brewspace. Promotion blog posts. Good bye blog posts. Hello blog posts. Knowledge base articles. Documentation. Questions. Answers. After work get togethers. Game of Thrones recaps. Insanely long, insanely confusing to follow customer prospects threads that originated in a massive email CC chain.

One of our leaders liked to say that Brewspace (and other Jive instances) represented an organization’s corporate memory. I would have gone one step further. In my time there, we had four different CEOs, but we only had one Brewspace. It represented 15 years of knowledge, conversations, memories, joys, tears, arguments, and reconciliations. Brewspace was our greatest strength and our greatest weakness — because if anyone at Lithium had one hour of unfettered access to it, they’d understand how we work inside and out and could have used it against us.

In essence, Brewspace represented Jive’s culture. Whenever we lost our way (and we did many times), we always had Brewspace to look back upon to help us back on our path.

“You are still helping me solve problems after all these years.” This image and message was from one of my former co-workers who remained at Jive after I left. The corporate memory of “Brewspace” remains strong even 10 years later (I don’t even remember posting this!)

In its rawest and purest form, an online community is an avenue for a group of individuals to share information and opinions when they otherwise may never connect. Communities benefit greatly from a network effect: The value of the community itself increases as more actively participate in the community. In other words, an online community of five co-located individuals isn’t extremely valuable, but the value increases exponentially with each additional user — especially if these are users that otherwise would have never met (whether due to distance, different socio-economic classes, etc.).

The true differentiating value of an online community is the ability to democratize collaboration and etch the most insightful and valuable contributions into digital memory. During face-to-face collaboration situations, you’re often limited to locality and with that, you’re limited to a certain social class or economic class or within certain roles of departments in the corporate setting. It’s rare to see executives collaborating (or even talking) to entry-level employees in the corporate workplace on a regular basis. But in Brewspace, and any other online community, the barriers for collaboration are torn down and thoughts and opinions are measured by what is said and not by who is saying it. The entry-level support engineer Vinh from 2008 had just as much of an opportunity to contribute as the product director Vinh from 2017.

Beyond reducing the cost of connecting disparate individuals, true online communities have other tools and features that can help emphasize collaboration and build a sense of identity. Most important is the role of the community manager — since communities can organically take on an identity of its own, having a community manager focused on nurturing it and making sure that it grows in a positive way. The community itself is merely a tool for storing digital memories. It is the community manager that influences what kinds of memories are kept and ultimately determine if they’ll be useful for future generations.

Other features such as gamification and badges (to recognize and encourage participation), affinity groups (to give users a reason to collect within a certain area of the community and have a focused discussion), moderation and content lifecycle management (to cultivate and organize the memories within a community), and search/discoverability (to make it easy for new users to find the parts of the community where they can make the most impact) are all critically important for a true online community platform.

It’s the combination of the network effect and the democratization of collaboration that makes online communities a really valuable tool. Collecting all the dissenting and agreeing (?) opinions in a single place is valuable, and it only becomes more valuable with each additional opinion. Tearing down the barriers for contribution and making it so that anyone can contribute ensures that valuable thoughts don’t slip through the cracks. And throwing all those conversations in an online community means that while you may forget what you said 10 years ago, it’s always there to help someone when they need it most.

Just trying to understand and solve problems faster than I can cause them!

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