Monday, November 6, 2017

Developmental stages and problems for open communities and networks

Over the past 8 years, I have contributed to the development of, an open network for open innovation and peer production. 
SENSORICA can be described as a commons-based peer production community as defined by the p2pValue project, and as a permissionless p2p network like Bitcoin. 
Along with my hands-on involvement in SENSORICA, I have also contributed to other open networks and communities and observed their evolution. It didn't take long to noticed that these new types of organizations were developing similar problems as they were growing in complexity. A few months ago, I sat down to uncover the underlying mechanisms behind these problems. My theory is synthesized in the table below. 

In essence, open networks and communities go through developmental stages. The transition from one stage to the next requires organizational transformations, which are adaptations to the new conditions that the organization is facing. More often than not, these transitions are accompanied by organizational crisis. Sometimes, these crisis are fatal, they destroy the organization. This is an attempt to inform those involved in setting up open communities and network, to help them steer clear of potential pitfalls as their organization mutates through its developmental stages.  

Summary of developmental stages (see details below)

Developmental Stage
Contribution and reward
Only volunteer
Ambiguous and ad hock  
Friendly, loose, fun
Attract attention
Mostly volunteer
Some basic roles, some norms, some procedures
Mostly friendly and fun
Dealing with complexity
Managing material assets
Volunteer and for benefit
Clear and more stable roles and relations, written rules, some adopted methodologies
Higher responsibility, some frustrations.
Dealing with the freerider
Tangible rewards generation
Mostly for benefit and volunteer
Clear and stable roles, formal relations, system of rules, body of methodologies, legal structure
Formal, professional
Dealing with the thief
Large potential
For benefit, wealth generation and projecting influence
Always filled roles structure, excellent governance, solid legal standing, proven body of methodologies, connections with the larger ecosystem
Responsible, formal, professional
Dealing with the jealous enemy

This table was created by Tibi, as part of a new synthesis work. In alpha version. CC BY-SA 3.0 licence

If the table above is not clear, if you need clarifications, please ask questions in the comments below, and I will use your feedback to improve this post. 

More details and explanations

From informal to formal

Organisations start with a few individuals that share a passion and some goals. In the early stages, this small group uses simple means of communication and coordination like email, social media applications, etc. Activities are essentially conducted in continuity with the practices established before the formation of the group. As the project gets better defined, more tools are adopted, such as shared content management tools (ex. Google Docs, wiki, etc.), community tools (ex. a Facebook group or page). You get the picture... 

As the group grows and activities become more complex, members start to lose track and some level of frustration sets in as things start falling through the cracks. Usually, some group members make calls for adopting more complex tools, for following more strict methodologies of work (regular meetings, better documentation, better communication, better planning and project management, ...), and for adopting some rules. This is the formalization phase. The typical crisis marking the transition from the informal state to the formal state manifests itself on different levels at the same time. 

A power struggle can develop as some people start to occupy key roles in the organization. Who holds the passwords to essential IT infrastructure tools? Who calls the shots during planning and strategy making? Who emerges as the face of the organisation? Who has access to the bank account? 

Organisational problems that occur during scaling from an informal setting are of different types and require different types of solutions. We can identify 4 major dimensions: 

* infrastructure (luck of proper tools), 
* governance (luck of proper rules), 
* methodology (luck of proper processes), 
* culture (luck of understanding, bad habits, misalignment in values). 

Some organisational problems are interpreted by some members in traditional terms, proposing traditional solutions that are incompatible with open organizational models. People that have been formed in the traditional world are not familiar with decentralized and distributed solutions to these problems, they don't trusted them, or they feel insecure. Tensions mount between those who understand p2p processes and want to avoid the creation of hubs or critical centralities within the community or the network, and those who think that centralization (or some level of) is the only way to insure quality, accountability and reliability.      

Formal processes require adoption. For various reasons, some members will not pay too much attention to the new rules, will not use the new tools, will not follow the new methodologies. In an open organization that is in bootstrapping mode, there are no clear mechanisms to induce conformity. The best way is to engage everyone in the formalization process and to generate a strong sense of belonging and ownership, to have most members feel that these are their new formal processes, not someone's else's imposed on them. But even that is not enough, and the organization will have its fair share of ''delinquent'' members. In the period of adoption of formal processes tensions can mount between those who conform and those who don't. If people don't use the new calendar they will miss important events. If they don't document important information in the proper way, the organisation loses potential. If people don't use the community's resources according to the protocol the organization loses capacity. If people don't use a structured way to make decisions the organisation loses coherence.     

To managing material assets

Material assets have costs associated with their use and maintenance. For example, if the community decides to give itself a physical shared space it will need to cover basic expenses (rent, power, Internet, insurance). If the community decides to purchase some equipment, like a 3D printer for example, it needs to make sure that it can cover the costs of repairs and updates, in order to maintain this equipment functional. Most community members will vote for the acquisition of physical assets, which provide them direct benefits. Yes, would be nice to have a shared space with Internet access and some toys to play with. But since this is the first time the community deals with physical assets it has no proper mechanisms in place for sustainability. Most often than not, the majority decides for the acquisition and only a few core members are left with the burden of maintaining them (pay bills, clean, repair, ...). The crisis occurs when these core members that carry the burden develop a sense of unfairness, and try to distribute the load to other community members, especially those who make heavy use these assets. It is hard to implement new practices once a constituency of freeriders (those who use without contributing much) has been consolidated. The best outcome is to have these freeriders quit the community once new rules for shared costs and responsibility are implemented, which might result in criticism directed towards those who have pushed hard for the implementation of the rules. The worst outcome is to have these freeriders exert their cumulative democratic weight to oppose and delay the measures and thus to drain the community of its most essential resources.  
Those who have already burned out at least once in open communities probably know what I am talking about...  

Tangible rewards generation
stay tuned... 

Large potential
stay tuned... 

By AllOfUs

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