Keys to design networks and collaborative communities

This is a translation of the original article by Luis Tamayo, connector of OuiShare in Madrid. Luis is a sociologist expert in networks and collaboration. He can be reached at luis@ouishare.net. I did not seek permission to do the translation, I just got on with it.

We humans strive for freedom, and our history is defined by the ongoing fight for it. Now in the 21st century, we are still in that battle, for the freedom of being ourselves, to be what we want to be, or rather, for the freedom to choose the life we want to live. Our right and freedom to seek the essence of what we are, to develop our skills according to our wishes and interests, which make us unique.

As social beings, we exercise that freedom by interacting with others. We function within structures and systems ruled by some basic principles, the rules of the game accepted by all and necessary for coexistence.

These structures, such as schools, organisations, nation-states or cities, were not designed to harness the freedom of one self, but to grow and expand. As a consequence, the governance of those structures has been based around control. This has resulted in vertical hierarchical structures where differences are penalised, as well as autonomy and even collaboration, and where competition has been a key driver.

The structures of our future and our present are networks based around sharing, resulting in collaborative networks better adapted to the skills and principles of the peoples of the 21st century.

Community is a buzzword that is being labeled on so many thing. Let’s face it, what is a community, are communities and networks the same thing?

Communities are based on affection links and their values, and tend to happen in small scale and with proximity. Their governance model is predominantly democratic. On the other hand, networks are based on efficiency and reach and can be rather large thanks to technology. The most common governance model in networks is based on meritocracy.

In spite of this simple definitions, it is not easy to differentiate between community and network. Even less so when these structures are ever more dynamic and hybrid. For instance, we at OuiShare define ourselves as a global network of local communities. All while the task of putting labels on things becomes harder by the day in this liquid modernity we live in (Zygmunt Bauman, 2008).

If we move on from distinguishing communities from networks, I’d rather focus on their commonalities to reflect on their relevant characteristics, the learnings and keys when it comes to design and nurture a network or a community.

How to design and nurture a collaborative system?

Let’s say that the following are collaborative systems: the collaborative structure (the container, the scaffolding and the rules of the game) and the collaborative model (the nurturing of relationships and the governance of the system). While there are many aspects to these systems, I would like to focus on only four: resources, contribution/retribution, culture and governance.

  1. Resources — What do we have and what do we need?

One of the most commonly accepted definitions of community or network describes them as a group of individuals who share common resources. Resources is everything we have at hand to try and fulfill our mission. Resources can be tangible (such as tools, money or physical space) or intangible (such as knowledge, culture or affection). Resources can also be categorised as private, commons, public, open or closed.

The structure and growth potential of the network will be defined by the availability and combination of those resources, as well as the network’s capacity to combine them. This growth potential based on the available resources is well explained by the Pentagrowth model.

Sharing resources is one key characteristic of collaborative systems, as sharing resources results in a better use of those assets and a higher diversity of uses, discovering new ways to apply them and to innovate. Networks and communities can do more with less.

One major challenge to create and nurture a collaborative system is to identify which resources are available, which resources are needed, and how to use them (and look after them) in a collective way.

2. Contribution/Retribution — Why do people participate?

A network requires its members to interact, otherwise there is no network whatsoever, obviously. What drives people to participate are the contribution-retribution systems. Contribution is what members bring to the collaborative system, such as knowledge, resources or work. The survival and growth of the network depends on those contributions. On the other hand, retribution is what the members obtain in exchange for those contributions.

This mechanism of contribution/retribution are intimately connected to the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations of the network members, to the network’s capacity to build trust and to its ways of creating reputation for its members (specially so in meritocratic networks).

3. Culture — How can we make it work?

Success at building a collaborative system is certainly easier if there is a culture of sharing and collaborating, both in its members and in the institutions that may be part of the network. If such culture is not present at the onset, it is important to engage in a mindset transformation early on.

We are programmed to function within hierarchical and paternalistic structures. Even the most conscious collaborative systems risk falling into such structures and seek the father/leader to provide guidance and to say what needs doing. We are intrinsically collaborative, but it has been inhibited. We must go back to the gym of the ideas and get our collaborative muscles back in shape. To create a collaborative system, one must first activate a culture of collaboration.

With a good foundation, a culture of sharing and collaborating will provide great perks further down the line, as it will be key to harness all the potential of a collaborative system — facilitating autonomy, agility, growth and impact.

A common culture of collaboration will synch purpose, intentions and actions, will reduce frictions, control and supervision, and will enable organic, liquid, agile and adaptive structures.

4. Governance — How to manage a collaborative system?

The first steps of a collaborative system tend to happen around the structure, but this scaffolding and rules of the game are not enough per se. Chaos is a natural state and controlling it with a governance model is vital. Governance is the way to manage power (decision-making), relationships (communications and resolution of conflicts) and value (knowledge, reputation, opportunities and money). A collaborative system can’t live long without a clear, simple and consensual governance model.

Power Distribution. Some people think that decisions in a collaborative system are made by consensus or by voting, but this is not always true (in fact, this is a ‘collaborative myth’). An assembly model may make sense for a small community, but in a network assemblies are virtually impossible and would generate many barriers and conflicts. Networks are mainly meritocratic systems and tasks and roles are distributed.

Relationships. The governance model also covers how communications are done and how conflicts are resolved. These two aspects are often overlooked. A collaborative system produces a large amount of information, learning, connections and autonomous work and it can be difficult to distribute all this throughout the network, making it accessible in an easy and transparent way. Communications are key to have everyone up to speed and to integrate diversity.

Value. The governance model defines how the network distributes the value it has captured with its activities. In addition to the retribution of the members of the network, the model also facilitates the distribution of assets common to the whole network, such as brand reputation. Meritocracies generate elites and the governance model must take into consideration the compensation between those people with high-visibility and other members of the network who contribute in a more hidden way. Money is one key resource to ensure the sustainability of the network and its members, especially nowadays that we are transcending employment and salaries. At OuiShare we use Co-Budget as a collaborative tool for managing funds.

Final Word — Cooking a collaborative system

Without a doubt, resources are the ingredients of any collaborative system. Often, we have more resources than we think and we can do quite a lot with them if we put them in common and use them and combine them creatively. The skill to combine those ingredients lies in a collaborative culture, the contribution/retribution systems help everybody with their purpose and the governance models are the recipes we can use to mark the times and the measures. Let’s get to it.

Learn more about OuiShare at ouishare.net