Why Companies shouldn’t build Online Communities..

22 10 2009

1600_3Forget about Communities.Don’t do it. Don’t even think about it. Oh I know that communities are all the rage currently – companies are falling over themselves to create, build and own their very own communities: Communities of Employees, Communities of Customers, Communities of Interest Groups, Communities, Communities, Communities….

But with all of these efforts out there, how many of them are yielding real tangible results for the sponsoring organization? It seems that the very concept of communities is a flawed one for most corporations – leading to wasted time, money and effort – and I think I know why.

Let me explain:

2945559128_53078d246bI find that many, maybe even most, companies approach social media, and other online community projects – with very little, if any, forethought on how value will be achieved as a result of jumping on this particular bandwagon.

They seem to share a belief that value will just “be created” by the mere existence of a new online channel; that innovation will simply appear if you provide a new collaborative tool; that competitive advantage will be retained through the “ownership” of a new networking group.  Yet that’s rarely ever the case.

field-dreamsUnlike in the movie “Field of Dreams” – you can build it – but “they” rarely come spontaneously – or if they do, they may well end up playing a jovial game of scrabble rather than a vintage MLB baseball game on the back lawn.

Even the word Community itself is somewhat flawed when applied to a corporate setting: Here’s the Dictionary.com definition of the word:

com⋅mu⋅ni⋅ty  [kuhmyoo-ni-tee]

–noun, plural -ties.

1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
2. a locality inhabited by such a group.
3. 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 (usually prec. by the): the business community; the community of scholars.
4. a group of associated nations sharing common interests or a common heritage: the community of Western Europe.
5. Ecclesiastical. a group of men or women leading a common life according to a rule.
6. Ecology. an assemblage of interacting populations occupying a given area.
7. joint possession, enjoyment, liability, etc.: community of property.
8. similar character; agreement; identity: community of interests.
9. the community, the public; society: the needs of the community.

old-ageThere’s a lot of nice words and feelings in that definition. “A social group”; “common heritage”; “interacting populations”; “shared identity”….The word conjures up a nice warm vision of a collection of friends and associates sitting around a fireside or, for the more cynical among you,  images of suburban old age homes in Florida and Arizona maybe.

As I look at that definition however- I ask myself – where’s the value in that for a company? Where does it get created? Augmented? Shared? Delivered? Whichever way you look at it, communities are about people gathering with no set agenda or action in mind – so why would a company invest/waste resources to simply enable random conversations amongst a group of people?  At best, it’s an exercise in corporate branding to be associated with a particular conversation topic; at worst it’s an exercise in wishful thinking.

Lencioni_WebAt the recent World Business Forum, held in New York City on Oct 6-7, Patrick Lencioni (founder and president of the Table Group, and a fantastically articulate and dynamic speaker incidentally) spoke to the audience about “What makes a good team?”.  One specific question stuck with me: “If you have a bunch of people who play in a sports team each week, really get on well with each other socially, gel as a unit, yet still manage to not win a single game – are they a good team?” Patrick asked with a mischevious look  at the front row and a pause for effect.  “The answer is NO – they’re just a bunch of LOSERS!” (cue laughter and some nervous side glances between executives either side of me).

Whilst maybe declared a tad glibly by Patrick, the core message was clear, and it got me thinking about what had been bothering me with the concept of communities for so long: That lack of performance, of achievement, of purpose. It struck me that the relative value of the concept of “communities” to most organizations is not dissimilar to Patrick’s example of a team that doesn’t win – they are, in essence, Losers. And why would companies waste time creating groups of Losers?

It seems to me that the failure companies are making starts right at the beginning with a badly formed misconception as to what they really need – and it’s not an online community – it’s an online team.

It may seem as if I’m nit-picking or playing with semantics in making this differentiation – but consider what this simple change in mindset would mean to projects as you think about how to build a great online team instead of an online community.  All of a sudden you add dimensions of:


  • Direction and Leadership
  • Shared Goals, Shared Failures, and Shared Successes
  • Ensuring Participation of Diverse Skill Sets
  • Tangible Achievement
  • Passion, Purpose and Loyalty

Whist still retaining all the collaborative, cooperative and creative structures usually associated with Communities.

I don’t know about you – but I know which one I’d rather build! You tell me – What’s the more powerful concept?…



25 responses

22 10 2009
Gary Gilchrist

I agree that the spontaneous success of communities don’t just happen just because it is the ‘In Thing’.

I work for a company that produces Virtual Events and even though these events are generally episodic and designed around a certain topic they are themselves essentially on-line communities. However traditionally we too have seen very little interaction between the attendees.

A catalyst for people to start networking and interacting is definitely needed to start the conversation. Once the ball is rolling then it generally keeps rolling and this is when it becomes a community.

We have had some success stories where during an event, the organizer has specifically asked for feedback from the community, such as asking for design input on certain products. This has then been mediated by a subject matter expert who adds value to the communal input and the people remained engaged.

Overall, I think communities will evolve. Just like IM will one day evolve to replace e-mail.

Gary Gilchrist
Director of Sales

23 10 2009
uberVU - social comments

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by KRCraft: Forethought RT @bpluskowski: Why Companies shouldn’t build online communities http://wp.me/plxkn-95 #smchat #socialmedia #strategy…

23 10 2009
Stuart Miniman

Fully agree that too many jump on the latest tool without any real goasl in mind (if you don’t know where you are going, any path will get you there). There needs to be a shift in thinking, not just a change of venue. There are some inherent benefits in the online communities, but if companies are not willing to try and be more open and engaging (changing from a broadcast to a dialogue), then they shouldn’t bother.

23 10 2009
louise david


All communities need the dimensions you attribute to building a great team. If a company is unable to build great teams offline, it seems obvious to me that it will be unable to build a valuable community off or online.

What is important to discuss within a company first is the ‘desirability’ of creating a community at all.

What are the business objectives of the organisation? How are they served by their communication strategy and activity? What are the levers for change and where is the locus for action?

Armed with some basic analysis a company can go and find out what the skinny is online and plan their approach, based on some verifiable data. I completely agree that the notion if you build it they will come – really only works if you’ve bothered to find out what it is ‘they’ would like to engage with first.

If you want to know what’s in it for your customer – ask your customer what drives them to purchase, engage, promote and return. Even setting up the mechanism to find this lot out – might prove the start of your community. By their nature they are organic, grassroots and evolutionary – you can’t just make one up! Not really.

There is no magic bullet. There is only sound business planning, deep, intelligent engagment and measured activity.


23 10 2009

Right, because most companies don’t understand the value produced by community, they should just put the blinders on and keep going off the cliff.

If the news industry had a community strategy instead of coming late to social software as a way to market to communities, maybe they wouldn’t be about to go down the drain.

There are some good reasons in here why companies should only build communities if they know why they are doing it. That they have some understanding of the fundamental shifts that are happening, and know they need a new approach. Building an on-line community without first deeply re-examining your companies position and direction is a waste of time and energy as you suggest, but that in no way justifies a conclusion that there is no business value there.

Some companies are proving this wrong every day.

23 10 2009

Organizations should not rely on any magic happening in online communities. But social media has unique capabilites when it comes to connecting people that should meet (but wouldn’t in real life).

It can also be a part of the strategy for learning organization http://wiki.cantara.no/display/KM/Learning+organization (commity inside or engaging with external community) so innovation and improvements that would not have happened otherwise.

You can not predict or expect outcomes from communities, but turning down these ideas can result in lost opportunites.

24 10 2009
Mark Bennett


I understand where you’re coming from, but the five points you give to turn loosers into winners will probably help to improve formal collaboration, while leaving the pot of gold of extracting value (tangible and intangible) from informal collaboration on the table. You can’t tell people to collaborate (well you can but it’s a waste of time and usually counerproductive), and as Etienne Wenger once remarked: “if companies could manage communities of practice, they probably wouldn’t need them”.

Given the right context and careful nurturing, informal community collaboration can yield huge value – the trick (often difficult) is to surface this value. A vital task in my view is to show people what winning looks like, but this requires resources. My last role was to lead a portfolio of some 50 communities in a large mining comany (Rio Tinto) involving some 10,000 people, and here is a 5-minute video showing what successful informal commumity collaboration looks like:

In short, there is huge value locked up in people’s heads, which can be unlocked through informal collaboration. Sure, people need to learn how to do this, just like they need to learn lots of other things like how to communicate effectively or even drive safely. All too often the mistake is made that collaboration is somehow a natural behaviour. We also need to develop the capability of formal project teams, and your points drive towards this direction. But don’t ignore the value of informal community collaboration – companies can learn how to do this without making all collaboration take place through formalised project teams.


Mark Bennett

24 10 2009
Helen Nicol

I agree that there may be a misconception that one can “build” a community, online or otherwise. Communities are not “built”, they are cultivated. Any knowledge manager worth his or her salt knows this. The value of a well functioning community is vast – for sharing, innovation, collaboration and a feeling of “being in it together”.

Value generated for the business is down to the people in that community, and the support of the organisation. When the conditions are right, the people are right and the tools are right, communities flourish DESPITE the organisational structures which teams are bound by. The major value of communities is that they exist OUTSIDE of the constrains of organisational hierarchy and bureaucracy, providing stability by virtue of their fluid nature.

24 10 2009

A lot of people may share your contrarian views today. You make a valid point about having some clear goals. They should be staged- start with a blog and add value per department- online support, customer service, sales – use the technology to gain efficiencies, add new processes etc. Then go to inbound marketing support- product Betas, pilot programs and innovation and then develop relationship models to form a uniform horizontal communication- “tipping the departmental” silos. This is a huge opportunity for all organizations to achieve.

Engaging with customers and prospects is the objective. They own your brand. Creativity and clarity are key.

25 10 2009


Very much agree to your conclusions. This is what we found out to our detriment too!

Thank you for this wonderful post (& timely for us). It is not a community that we need, it is a tribe. I forgot my own learnings, thank for reminding!



25 10 2009

One simple thing which companies which have COP need to do is to make sure that people who form these online communities meet face to face more regularly and share knowledge.

Only then Good knowledge and not SPAM would get generated in these online communities.

25 10 2009
Richard Millington

Hi Boris,

I think you’ve wrapped a good point in the wrong issue.

Businesses don’t properly understand the benefits of online communities, nor how to achieve them.

But this doesn’t mean online communities don’t offer benefits. It certainly doesn’t mean that online communities are a bad idea.

When you connect customers together, you become the ticket to their friendship group. They keep buying the product to be part of the club. People keep going to the same bar to meet the friends they have made there. It’s the same thing.

You also can get amazing insights and feedback from them. You can cut your advertising costs and reach people through your community. Better, you can use your community members to spread the word, recruit new members and directly increase sales. Online communities add an extra element to customer service, you don’t need to phone up the company if the community can answer the question.

Creating an online community also forces the company to be more social and open. It can fundamentally change how an organization approaches it’s public for the better.

Online teams with fixed goals are great too. But people don’t work for free. They work because it’s fun to do and gives them the recognition of others they consider peers. This is what online communities offer.

26 10 2009
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26 10 2009
Thabo Monare

I think the online team analogy is dead wrong. Teams by their nature have also been proven detrimental to knowledge sharing in the long run.

I also think the western fetish of winners and losers is detrimental to some of what is needed to achieve some benefits of communities such as social learning.

27 10 2009
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27 10 2009

Great post. While I think some of it is semantics – I have similar issues with the word branding – I think the most important point is about accountability. I see many brands talk about how many followers they have on facebook or twitter, but they don’t seem to be able to quantify how much those followers are worth.

I see no reason why a value can’t be attributed to these followers. Survey them, ask them about their habits, cross reference them with your database (if that’s possible) and give them a value. The likelihood is they’re actually quite valuable. They’re engaged with your brand, they agreed to sign up. You didn’t interrupt them or drag them kicking and screaming.

28 10 2009
Art Paton

Our company has published and presented breakthrough results that are attributed only to the fact that a community enabled the results. We agree that “build it and they will come” is a flawed approach. No one needs another place to go or more to do. Value to the community members and the business is paramount. We strongly recommend that the “team” meet face to face, if possible under the leadership of a person committed to leading the community and decide their purpose, how they will know if they succeed and their value to the business. These are published on the header of the community for all to see. Community tools are relatively easy. Member contributions are the life blood of our communities. Results from our communities include global dissemination of a 8X software productivity method that failed to be implemented anywhere for 5 years until the community was created; and a global engineering symposium of 2.400 engineers in 12 countries mediated by communities instead of sessions in a hotel, at far less cost, far greater international participation and immediate engineering productivity improvements from methods shared. How about if we focus on how to make this happen using communities rather than beat the negative drum about why it cannot happen. Too many companies will read your blog and kill the nascent efforts that would have brought them great results.

29 10 2009
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30 10 2009
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3 11 2009
Raymond D'Silva

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Nice blog.

However, somewhere the message has been mixed-up about relevance of on-line community with actual value derived from a community (online or offline).

I don’t want to ‘speak’ about the medium (online/offline) here as much is available on the net, however I’d like to argue that a community is an important element of not only business, but society as a whole (within which a business functions).

Companies that encourage communities, implicitly have the opportunity to gather good practices that evolve organically from each contributing member. If a company would require a team (say a project team or selling team), then it would assign objectives, metrics and deadlines, with a leader/s in charge to deliver. That would be a team.

A community on the other hand is a group of individuals with a common idea/culture/working who come together to share issues, best practices, ideas etc. with or without a clear objective in mind.

A good example is group of scientists at the Royal Society meeting over tea to discuss physics, medicine, mathematics, astronomy etc. Each scientist may come from a different branch of research, but is bond together perhaps by the thought of knowing and sharing, perhaps by the desire to contribute to the betterment of society or perhaps by the desire to advance science.

Place this in a context of an organisation, and you get innovation. I attended a virtual-conf by APQC last week where a deck on how graphics can tell a better story was presented. A case study of Shell was presented where Shell fosters a community of internal -team, all staff and externa- academics, enterprenuers, vendors etc. people. This has been going on since 12 years, and has been successful!

7 12 2009
Boris Pluskowski

Dear All

Many, many thanks for your responses – they’re both very welcome and very appreciated. I wanted to take some time to reply to some of the concerns that were expressed in the comments.

Many of you seemed to think that I was advocating that companies should no longer value the input of large groups of people. Far from it – the main point in the post was to point out that as a structure for large groups of people, the community concept is a flawed one – at least from a corporate perspective. It’s simplistic, unstructured, and lacking in motivation and purpose to name but a few flaws.

That’s not to say that value can’t be created in a community setting – it’s just very hard to do so because you’re relying on value being created through serendipitous interactions between community members. It’s not unlike advocating participating in the lottery as your prime way of getting rich – sure, it’s possible that you could hit the jackpot if you take part, but only a fool would rely on that as their sole chance at fame and fortune.

Likewise, whilst there is definitely a place for serendipity in an organization (more on that in a future post) – it would be a foolish management team that would rely on its occurrence to generate value for the company. My argument instead is that the team framework is a much more robust and reliable one when it comes to generating value for a company. In fact, in the few cases where looser community based initiatives have created value, I’ve found it’s usually because they began to adopt the characteristics and roles of a Social Team – namely things like purpose, direction, shared goals, diversity in skill sets and specialized roles, etc.

You could also make a good argument based on semantics – ie, that a Social Team is merely a type of Community; however, I think it would be equally valid to say that a community is simply a dysfunctional Social Team.

I think it’s also important to point out I focus on strategies and processes specifically to drive corporate value. Whilst I believe the Social Team concept still holds and still works in more social groups, the concept of what constitutes value and the expectation of it being created in those groups is very different to that of a large enterprise investing in this area.

Companies invest real money as well as intellectual capital into creating and participating in these networks, and as such, need to see a reasonable return, ideally on the bottom line to justify investing in these initiatives.

Having said that, my core belief is still that people function and perform better with a degree of organization when compared to loose collectives. In addition, the visualization aid that thinking of these groups in a similar method to that of an amateur sports team gives us to analyze and improve the quality of that interaction is invaluable.

I’ll go deeper into the Social Team concept in future posts, but in the meantime – please do keep your comments coming, or contact me directly via e-mail or twitter (@bpluskowski) –do discuss this further!

Best Regards to all ,

8 12 2009
Continuing the Conversation: For Companies, Build Teams, Not Communities « The Complete Innovator

[…] « Why Companies shouldn’t build Online Communities.. […]

9 12 2009
Matt Chapman


better late than never but I found the encapsulation of Losers quite poignant. I find a lot of people worried they will miss the big idea idea if they don’t reach out to their community to capture anything and everything. So in almost blind panic engage with everyone on everything.

I recently received an update from an on-line community I’m part of. From some 80,000 + ideas they have taken 50 forwards. Of course what I heard was 50 made it but what happened to the 79,950 or so others? Are there that many losers out there? Or is that because the company doesn’t know what it wants so it’s willing to sift through everything it doesn’t want to get to the 50 things it needs? Or is this a PR exercise and as the advert says “Windows 7 was my idea”? For me its a scatter gun – no idea what I’m aiming at but if I fire enough shots off I’m bound to hit something I want. What is the real value in this – honestly? For most, I think its PR that they have a community so when they are around the CxO golf course they can bling with who has the most twitter followers and blog posts!



PS love your community…. 😉
PPS I still have no bling

22 01 2010
Tackling Collaborative Innovation – the #smchat and #innochat doubleheader « The Complete Innovator

[…] groups are classic “Social Teams” by my definition – a loose “membership”, focused on achieving a specific purpose, […]

9 02 2010
Boris Pluskowski

Continuing on the conversation started in this post, I’ve gone into more depth on the roles needed for successful collaboration in Social Times: ” Defining the “Social Team”” : http://wp.me/plxkn-9Q – look forward to reading your comments!

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