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What to learn about community from traffic in India

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At a recent conference, Rachel Happe gave a presentation titled: The Business of Community,  Rachel is principle and Co-Founder of the Community Roundtable.  ( ).  Rachel gave an interesting analogy between traffic in India and the way communities operate.

To an American, the picture above looks like pure chaos.  It looks like chaos to Americans because we are familiar with a more organized, linear, structured, and disciplined approach to driving.  It is also the case that the majority of organizations look more like traffic in America than traffic in India.  That is, organizations are hierarchical and structured.  Organizations are organized and rational.  Organizations have “lanes” and traffic signals.  Organizations have rules of the road.  If you don’t learn the rules of the road and observe them, in the organizational sense, then you will be a danger to yourself and others.

But, increasingly, much innovative work gets done in community.  These may be communities within an organization.  These also may be communities within the corporation that extend to alliance partners and customers.  The great thing is that communities are liquid.  They can form any time; they can take on shape.

To people who spent most of their corporate lives in the 20’th century the way community looks to them is like an American driver looking at traffic in India – frightening.  Expect the C-Suite of 50-something CEO’s, CFO’s, COO’s and the like to react with some hesitation to your social business experiment.

From my notes, here are some points on the analogy between traffic in India and the way communities in business work.

  1. Community, like traffic in India, is not linear or logical
  2. You can’t wait for everything to get organized.  You just need to go with it.
  3. You can’t control it
  4. There are no lanes as such in India.  But there are gaps.  Drivers, like community members, look for gaps and fill them.
  5. Everyone is responsible for outcomes.  Drivers and community members get to where they need to go.  Everyone takes responsibility.
  6. The traffic cops in India stand on the sidewalk.  In America, traffic cops stand in the middle of the street and direct traffic.  If the cops in India stood in the middle of the street they would get run over.  Same with hierarchical executives in community.  Stand on the side, or you will get run over.
  7. Traffic in India sounds like a cacophony.  But it’s not. There subtle social cues that all drivers come to know.  One horn beep means on thing, two beeps another, flashing lights at night mean something different.  Same with people in community.  They have subtle social cues which they come to know as part of the dynamic interaction.

If you need another analogy then try sports.  Consider the difference between American football and basketball.  Football is top-down strategic planning at its best.  At the opposite extreme is basketball where there is constant movement which creates gaps and opportunities on a continuous basis.  If you ever watched the Chicago Bulls with Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman you could see how they took cues from each others moves to get into the right position to score the points.  In basketball the strategy to score is always evolving – emergent from the game itself.  In football there are separate phases – plan the strategy and then execute.  To a football player perhaps basketball looks like chaos.  The same is true when traditional organizations look to community to innovate products and business models.

According to Rachel, the future of competitive advantage will be in the power of relationships – across employees, the company alliance partners, with customers, and other stakeholders.  The thinking goes that relationships is every companies weakest link.  And if you can excel at community and relationships you will have an advantage – all other things being equal.

So what’s new?

So hasn’t all this always been the case?  People working across networks of relationships?  Sure.  But what is different now is the technology that extends the reach of community from neighborhoods to the World.  That’s the game-changer in this old idea of community and networks.

The Road to Community

Below is a slide showing a maturity model of Community across the dimensions of Strategy, Leadership, Culture, Community Management, Content and Programming, Policies and Governance, Tools, and Metrics and Measurements.

The Take

I won’t say that the traditional hierarchical organization is obsolete.  But at least it’s under fire and being tested as the best way to deal with product and business model innovation.  Every FORTUNE 500 company is under intense competitive pressure.  If Rachel is right and the weakest link of any organization is in its relationships then a company that is farther along on the community maturity model just might have an advantage – all other things being equal.  The challenge to adoption is that the workings of community look like chaos to executives in traditional organizations.  But, if it can deliver superior results, then who cares about the structure?

Some have even questioned if the idea of a corporation is obsolete.  As an example, look at the success of LINUX.  LINUX is a community success story.  It’s a stunning success story where the open source community, working over the internet, as a self-organizing team, can create a product to rival the Windows operating system created by a traditional hierarchical billion dollar corporation.

“May you live in interesting times” is a common quote.  It’s both a proverb and a curse.

Clearly, something interesting is happening.  The curse will be to those organizations that can’t experiment and aren’t adaptive.


Related: Liquid Networks – That’s how we roll

Related: Riding the bus with “Spiffy”: forging informal networks of people 10 seconds at a time

From McKinsey – Harnessing the power of employee networks

Check out a community approach to Strategic Planning.  Top-down strategic planners take note..
Strategic Planning the WikiMedia Way


Written by frrl

July 16, 2012 at 3:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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