I have been noodling quite a bit lately on the needed transition to action that online community building demands. Whether it be online communities of practice (associations, alliances, ventures), interest-based communities (dogs, Vioxx, Treos) or distributed work for one organization, I hear a lot about "listening" and "conversations" and "emergence" -- many of these discussions exhibiting a rather utopian bent. While there is still much to learn about those three topics, and many other related ones, it seems there is a lack of widespread debate about transforming all that listening and conversation into action in the real, physical world.
Now, clearly, in the case of distributed work for an organization, the people involved by definition need to produce something in the real world. But are they truly efficient in doing so? In the case of communities of practice (or the perhaps not-so-aptly-designated activist communities), how many of them have really made something happen? A change in behavior, a change in legislation, a person elected, a product designed and delivered, and so on. How many times have we seen a failure of expected result (ineffectiveness or impact failure) despite all of the buzz? Are interest-communities actually convincing people to do something? Do they need to?
I have observed and participated in online communities of practice, for example, where members spent a lot of time happily, kindly, politely debating ideas, but stumbled when it came time to step forward to take action. The activity of getting to action kept running up against strong roadblocks in the form of differing philosophies, reluctance or fear of leadership, the lack of time or commitment to take action, and so forth. Getting to action was (and is) often hideously painful.
I think one key is the design of a community. When action (and the rules that need to be put in place to facilitate this) is an afterthought, you can't hammer it onto a community that has only vaguely addressed it. When action has to happen, all of the hidden biases, struggles, vanities, egos, weaknesses etc. that have been glossed over during the listening/conversing phase jump into heavy relief. And the result can be disheartening and discouraging.
I am going to be digging into this subject over the coming months. If you have comments, examples, sources, and/or ideas please let me know. If you want to write about it in this space, please propose that to me as a guest author. I think it is a truly important subject that needs more attention as ever more of us work, collaborate and communicate online.