O Community, Where Art Thou?
The topic of Communities, especially SharePoint Communities, has been on my mind quite a bit lately. According to dictionary.com, community is defined as "a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists". Hmm, okay, so the SharePoint community in and of itself fits that definition quite well – we are separate and distinct from the rest of the technology world in that we focus on a particular product (or rather a specific platform to be precise). I’ll buy that.
But what really makes our community unique? Well, the people in it, of course and, by extenson, their knowledge and experience. This includes all the users, bloggers, speakers, authors, trainers, developers, designers, architects, administrators, and, above all, the MVP’s. But more than just who we are, I think it’s what we are that sets us apart – a group of like-minded individuals with a desire to gain and share knowledge amongst ourselves – with heavy emphasis on the sharing.
We exercise our sharing of knowledge by blogging and commenting, writing, speaking, participating in user groups, attending conferences, and generally collaborating with our fellow community members in whatever forum is available to us. In business-speak, this is our core value proposition – we work together to educate one another. There’s nobody in our community who knows it all and I have yet to meet anyone who thinks they’ve got nothing else to learn. That’s what makes our group so exciting and fun – everyone is interested in what the other person has to say.
But communities can be as fragile as they are dynamic. Sooner or later any community is going to grow large and influential enough to attract particpants who don’t quite get it – egomaniacs, manipulators and those with a pure profit motive. In most cases these are easy to spot and generally wash out pretty quickly. But sometimes they come as wolves in sheep’s clothing, pretending to walk the walk while all the while looking to line their pockets at our expense. They have little to share and nothing to contribute, wanting only to exploit the dynamism of the group for their own gain. Against these influences we must be ever vigilant, as nothing can kill a group dynamic faster than a parasite leeching all the energy away.
To be fair, this sometimes happens to people who originally had good intentions but lost sight of the real value of the community somewhere along the way. They start to think that sharing must be followed immediately by compensation. They hold back on contributions, block others whom they see as competitors from encroaching on their turf, and develop a Little Napolean complex of command-and-control operations. While this might work well in business and war, it has a highly negative effect in a dynamic community such as ours, forcing away those with the best information and leaving those seeking that information with nowhere to turn.
Few things are as frustrating as watching newbies who come to community events seeking knowledge and understanding be thwarted by the leaders of the very group they are seeking to enter and having to stand by and watch because you are not part of the inner cirle, not one of the Little Napoleons, and not allowed to have a voice. Being a bit of a mercurial personality it tends to make me angry but it’s also quite sad.
Having said all that, it is incumbent upon those of us who really understand the true value of the community, to reach out to those who want to take part and bring them into the fold. We can get mad (which I often do) or we can do something positive (which usually happens after I’m done being mad) – establish alternate community events, give out our cards to encourage direct communication, send out a quick email with links to other sources of information.
That’s the great thing about a dynamic community – nobody owns it, nobody controls it, and nobody can stop us from making it better. The inherit weakness – no centralized command structure – is also the greatest strength, as we have the freedom to put forth our own ideas and let them be adopted or rejected on their own merits. Like a meshed network, if one node goes bad, the others can reroute and redirect the flow of information without undue interruption. Isn’t that what communities are all about?
So leave a comment and let me know what you think. Do you value the SharePoint community? If so, why? What are your experiences (positive and negative)? Have you had similar challenges and, if so, what did you do about it? And how can we, as members of the community, help you to have a better community experience?