Community is Plural

I wrote this piece in 2013, inspired by Robert Safian, the then-editor of Fast Company.

Robert Safian is the editor of Fast Company, and when he wrote ‘community is plural’ in a 2012 editorial he was trying to get at the notion that his community of readers is actually a multiplicity of communities:

Our audience is really a bunch of vibrant communities that don’t hew to the terms of traditional market segmentation. What matters is that they share something more sophisticated: a psychographic.

This is a concept I am developing as well, in the business context. As companies transition away from slow-and-tight organizations, based on collective long-term strategy and identity, the unitary community within a business shakes out into a multiplicity of overlapping communities. Some will still feel and act like the older, slow-and-tight organization, but many will become fast-and-loose, adopting the cooperative logic of ‘connectives’, shaped by the self-organizing dynamics of social networks rather than the imposed order of business process and ordained strategy.

These various communities within a single business pose a new challenge for leadership. In the past, creating a corporate culture meant indoctrinating people into a single collective, with explicit shared goals: especially a long-term and exclusive commitment to the company’s vision of the future and the company’s place in it. Today, in a time of radical change and ‘innovation vertigo’, wise leaders do not promulgate a single, official future, and in fact will encourage a variety of diverse ideas of what the future may bring. If only for that reason, we are confronted with the need to reject a single monolithic culture in any reasonably large business, and even in small ones that want to grow to become large.

The emergent properties of social networks — like knowledge creation, innovation, and sense making — may be the greatest leverage a company has, so allowing more communities within a single company will lead to higher levels of innovation and adaptation. Rather than a monolithic organization trained to operate as a single unit based on a single fixed set of rules, we are now confronted with an economic context where it’s more rational to have a spectrum of communities operating independently, inventing and rewriting their own rulebooks along the way.

And the self-awareness that this is going on in the business is the psychographic that these communities will share, so that this apparent disorder is understood as a source of strength, resiliency, and competitive advantage.

Originally published at in 2013.