Turning networks into communities: Empowering members to open doors

No comments

On January 25, I attended the “Communities, Networks & Collectives Salon: 2 to 73,000” event at Mettā. The keynote speaker at the event was Richard Hsu who talked about his communities and networks and the philosophies behind the projects that grow and support these communities and networks.

The description of the event reads as follows:

In an era of sharing and purpose economy based around impact, networks and communities, people no longer gather around just events or conferences–they gather around communities that forge a sense of identity, place, and purpose. …we will explore what it takes to build an authentic network of trust and purpose in Hong Kong and further afield during this special salon…What do models like co-learning, co-designing, Pan-Asia Network, TEDx, Burning Man, Singularity University, UNESCO, Neighbors and the G20 all have in common? How do we look at opportunities to build unique and meaningful platforms and ecosystems?

After the event, I wrote down my reflections:

Why do you want to build a community?

Community-building is trendy in the branding world. In 2014, the Harvard Business Review published an article “You Need a Community, Not a Network.” It provided case studies on how Ashoka, Fast Company magazine, Best Buy and Pfizer created successful communities, which could leverage crowd-sourced creativity and productivity. These communities have the characteristics described above: Firstly, members of such communities developed a collective identity and fostered solidarity through common values and interests. Secondly, they have motivated members and high levels of participation and interaction among members. Thirdly, they provide great platforms that facilitate coordination of member activities and empowers self-organisation.

So, a vibrant community, whether for profit or non-profit, should be characterised by:

  1. members being part of something greater than themselves;
  2. members who are motivated and engaged in self-organised activities; and
  3. environments shaped by open, resourceful and well-connected networks and platforms.

These characteristics transform mere collectives and networks into a community in the deep sense. But, is having a community the right thing to do to achieve your purpose? Communities embody democratised models of growth and adopt different dynamics of branding, engagement etc. compared with other collectives. This could be great …or this could be terrible. The original instigator of a community could lose control over the branding and direction of the community. This can of course be counteracted by having leaders with strong visions and clear mandates, connected with the community. For industry, building communities might not be suitable for every business.

Communities, in other words, should promote great citizenship and stewardship. They also need to adopt ethics, good governance and regulation, which in turn shape how the characteristics of the communities manifest – in their intensity and quality. This is a view similarly observed in the articles by Idealist Careers and Entrepreneur, which saw communities as multi-faceted ecosystems.

Strategies to build communities

Recognising when a group of people constitutes a community is one thing. It is quite another to find out how to develop common values and goals, grow networks and really make communities work. Community-building is about addressing a number of strategies, including branding, recruitment, engagement and delivery.

Here are a few basic questions that help me think about these strategies:

  1. What are the core values of the community?
  2. Are there collective interests? Is there a social mission or philosophy?
  3. What do members want? And, how do they want it? Or, how are member benefits distributed?
  4. What matters to members? Is it a sense of voice, agency and empowerment?
  5. How are members motivated to engage, collaborate and provide feedback?
  6. How are members’ needs and wants prioritised?
  7. Check if members really know what they want? Is it something hidden, intangible (e.g. access, connections), emotional (e.g. belonging, pride)?
  8. What are the common purposes (based on the 1st seven questions)?
  9. How does the community attract and keep members? Through its brand and value?
  10. How to improve membership engagement? How to make it fun?
  11. How does the community empower its members to get what they want?
  12. How is knowledge and values shared?
  13. How has the network grown over time? What are the barriers against growth?
  14. How does the community evolve and keep innovating over time? Are there different collective goals, needs and wants at different stages?
  15. How is the community’s structural integrity kept in shape? Incentives, disincentives and governance mechanics.
  16. What is the larger ecosystem? Are there competing or collaborating communities?

To make a community thrive, and a movement sustainable, there must be regular reflection on these planning questions – to be fully in touch with the spirit of the community and its needs. It would put the cart before the horse to unduly emphasise on the operational and execution aspects without determining the vision. This would otherwise sell the community short, and expose the community to mission drift. These fundamental issues are anchor points of the community.

Operation and execution are critically important, and they deserve careful, independent consideration. One of the considerations is designing the dynamics to be adopted by the community. The nature and dynamics of the community would be quite different depending on whether it is for profit or non-profit. For example, are there marketplace dynamics in place to exchange ideas, contacts and knowhow for collaboration? What role is there for free economy dynamics?

Role of community leaders

Community leaders are needed to curate and coordinate highly motivated individuals to form a community with a common vision. In particular, to:

  1. set group goals and align members with a common vision;
  2. guide and empower members to achieve their goals;
  3. hold members accountable for their performance;
  4. be the voice, execute collective action; and
  5. ensure members are rewarded and feel fulfilled as being part of a group working together.

Leaders should inspire and stretch members beyond their mental limits. And, effective community leaders have to adopt styles that bring out “responsive and responsible leadership,” which is the 2017 theme of the Forum in Davos.

The role of community leaders is often taken on by office bearers of an association or organisation. They are responsible for facilitating meetings and creating environments for initiatives and conversations. But, authentic communities need to encourage the regular development of new influencers and to cater for leadership in different forms in order to facilitate a vibrant community with organic growth. For example, ad hoc or adjunct leaders who might take on particular projects or initiatives for a limited duration.


Communities with a cause can be very creative, which can generate enormous value, especially in industries dominated by mass production and automation and where human creativity is enjoyed.  As Hsu said, designers and leaders of communities grounded on social impact have to question themselves why personally do we want to engage in social change in the first place. Only when we have a compelling case can we touch and move others to speak, to act and to change the world for the better.

I often find myself caught up in the “execution” – the process and mechanics of managing communities – and rarely have the chance to reflect on the “design” –   especially, the reason of being and not just the reason of doing. The event was a refreshing opportunity for me to reflect and indulge in dialogues about the art and humanity of community-building with thought-leaders and practitioners in this field.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.