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Community - Ezine February 2007
 

Climate change, globalisation, terrorism and instantaneous communication across the world continually remind us that we live in one finite planet. We live in a world of intense threat and great opportunity. This is also true at the smaller scale of an organisation. We will only make progress by working together. So building community is vital.

 

This Ezine gives some ideas about how to do this and some stories too.

 

A story – the fire drill

 

In the place I worked, we had an unexpected fire alarm on a lovely sunny day. For about half an hour, all the people from the offices assembled on the playing field. I noticed how much people enjoyed talking to each other and that much of it was about work. They met people they had only communicated with impersonally before. Community spirit was growing spontaneously. When we heard the all clear, we all trooped back into work with a collective sigh.

 

I just wonder what would have happened if someone had “forgotten” to tell us to return. Would we have added more value by being together than doing formal work?

 

Another story – the car club

 

Several of us lived in the same village and travelled 12 miles to work. Rather than driving separately, we travelled together. As a result, each car had five passengers. This meant that none of our partners needed to have a second car. We saved money, reduced our environmental impact dramatically, reduced congestion and had a cast iron reason for leaving work on time. Car parking at work was easier too as it needed much less space.

 

This system encouraged cooperation and connections between our partners and a sense of community between all of us. Our employer encouraged and supported this practice and even senior managers would do it, saying, “I have to go, my car club is waiting”!

 

This also meant we were able to be at home on time and be available to be with our young families at a stressful time of day.

 

The happy planet index

 

The happy planet index measures the efficiency with which countries turn their use of the planets resources, their “Environmental Footprint”, into the happiness and longevity of their people. Their report shows clearly that countries where there is strong community involvement are much better at this than others are. This is not so surprising. Community involvement helps with sharing resources and is enjoyable too.

 

Highly industrialised western countries with individualistic cultures like the US tend to do badly. The UK is not great either. The best is Vanuatu and the worst is Zimbabwe. The countries that do best tend to be islands and the countries of Central America. In both of these, community involvement and mutual interdependence are common factors.

 

As resources of oil, energy, water and raw materials get scarcer in future and the environmental impacts become more obvious and costly, we will all need to learn how to share and work in community. The only other choice would be a weakest to the wall struggle that would be catastrophic.

 

Community and organisations

 

Most organisations have hierarchical systems of organisation and reward. However, if you want to get anything done, you nearly always work through your informal network of friendships. If everyone decided to work to their job description or level, or not give anything that did not result in a personal benefit, then all organisations would collapse.

 

Organisational effectiveness depends on people making sacrifices that benefit the whole. Why do we do this, if it is not in our selfish interests to do so? We like cooperating. It is natural we are social animals. We also like contributing to and belonging to a community for the same reason.

 

Managers and consultants have good reasons to invest time and energy strengthening the community spirit in their organisations. This will help people cooperate better, share knowledge and resources and learn much faster.

 

The next section suggests some ways to do this.

 

How to build community at work

 

Better meetings

 

I have covered some of this before in ezines and articles about meetings and listening. Just to remind you that one of the simplest and most rewarding things you can do is to use the “Go Round” format in the meetings you run or attend. You simply ask everybody to speak for the same amount of time, say two minutes, about the topic while everybody else just listens attentively. If you do this carefully and discourage people from criticising each other’s contribution, you will be astonished how effective your meetings will be. They will build connection and community.

 

I have just come across a further enhancement of this idea that I have not used yet. You ask the people who usually are first to contribute to go last and those who usually go last to go first. Apparently, you may expect some silences but will get new and excellent thinking. Please try it!

 

Encourage knowledge sharing

 

There are many schemes and methods of knowledge management and sharing. The book Learning to Fly about BP is good on this.  David Gurteen runs excellent face-to-face and electronic discussions. Ecademy and other social networks have a system where members can access the profiles and interests of thousands of people.

 

Having a system is not enough, people have to want to put their information in and use the system. They need to know what will happen to and believe that there will be value in doing so. If they see their managers or other influential people using the system, this will help a lot.

 

If people know what the organisation stands for and what it trying to achieve is good and honourable, they are much more likely to cooperate. They will also be more likely to if they are involved I the creation of the process. This is a simple change management principle. See Rules of Thumb for Change Agents by Herb Shepard for this and more.

 

Reduce status symbols

 

Status symbols like different quality canteens, executive parking places, company cars and office furnishings all reinforce them and us attitudes and damage community. Many organisations have gone a long way to reduce these to good effect. Unfortunately, the increasing difference between senior management and director rewards and those of staff are undermining this and creating resentment.

 

Work outside the organisation

 

Some organisations have built pride and community spirit in their own organisations by working with communities outside their own organisation. A client told me with great pride about how his engineering consultancy had worked, without charge, with a community in Africa to provide fresh water and sanitation to many hundreds of people. The morale, public relations, personal development and community building benefits of the work far outweighed its costs.

 

Another client had run team-building events where people worked together to decorate and repair a youth centre close to one of their factories with similar benefits.

 

Community building events

 

Open space is a way of running large meetings where people involved create the agenda items and the organisation of groups to discuss them live on the day. These meetings tend to be much more exciting and rewarding for everybody than the usual highly stage-managed events that are common. It is perfectly possible to have hundreds of people at these events. The real issues that concern people will arise and you will have lots of brainpower available to start to give some answers. They clearly build community as well.

 

Appreciative inquiry summits can use similar methods but will always start with people investigating the strengths and positive core of the organisation. This makes people feel great about themselves, each other and the organisation. They feel energetic and want to make things even better. Then you move on to building a dream or ideal future based on your strengths, make it concrete and decide how to turn it into reality. Elegant methods for working with hundreds or even thousands of people exist for handling these events. The results are remarkable.

 

Network education

 

This shows the possibilities for learning in even a small community. About 1000 people in a suburb of London joined a simple network where they learned from and taught each other. The range of skills and knowledge exchanged was quite extraordinary. Could similar processes help inside an organisation or even a city?

 

Finally, as a reward for getting this far, and an appreciation of your interest in my ramblings, I would like to give you a small gift. It is a short ebook on “Developing People” designed for busy managers. Just click the link to get it. I hope you like it. 

 

Next ezines

 

I hope you found this one interesting. I am producing them less frequently because I am spending less time doing these days and more time being and this is good. If you have a subject, you would like me to explore, please let me know.

 

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Best wishes

 

Nick

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