Drawing a social network map

Teams, Communities and Networks: The Core of Organisations’ Success

An organisation’s capacity to respond to challenges and opportunities relies on its teams, communities and networks. At Social Now 2020 (Lisbon, 4 & 5 June) we will explore ways to develop and manage these social structures, and discuss examples of how they improve decision-making, agility, learning, knowledge sharing and retention, employee engagement, and innovation.

For now, let’s look at the difference between teams, communities and networks; how they benefit organisations; and their inherent issues and opportunities.

“investing in people and relationships is the most profitable and effective way to run a business.”  |  Jon Ingham

Differences and Similarities between Teams, Communities and Networks

Etienne Wenger and Beverly Trayner suggest that networks are groups of people linked by a “set of relationships, personal interactions, and connections (…) with its affordances for information flows and helpful linkages”.

This is very much in line with Daniel Ospina’s view that a “network is a web of interconnected personal relationships”, and, as Harold Jarche says “a constant flow of listening, observing, doing, and sharing”.

According to Jon Ingham, “[t]he reciprocal benefit offered by the network lies in extending the reach, enhancing the reputation and disseminating the value of each member’s contributions. This empowers each person to act in their own individual interests while contributing to the good of the whole network at the same time.

“chance favours the connected organization”  |  Harold Jarche

For Etienne and Beverly, communities require the “development of a shared identity around a topic that represents a collective intention — however tacit and distributed — to steward a domain of knowledge and to sustain learning about it”.

In other words, communities are groups of people who share a specific area of practice or interest and who discuss it with the intent of improving their knowledge and, potentially, their skills. Jon Ingham goes as far as suggesting that participation in communities feels like a social contract.

Snapshot comparison of different social structures

A snapshot comparison of different social structures, offered by Etienne C. Wenger and William M. Snyder in the HBR’s article “Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier” (Jan–Feb 2000)

In 2000, writing with William Snyder for the HBR, Etienne Wenger praised communities of practice through a powerful metaphor: “The strength of communities of practice is self-perpetuating. As they generate knowledge, they reinforce and renew themselves. That’s why communities of practice give you not only the golden eggs but also the goose that lays them.

Juanita Brown, writing in the influential book The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, says that “the idea of ‘change or exchange, shared by all’ is pretty close to the sense of community in organizations”.

“Networks connect; communities care.”  |  Henry Mintzberg

All communities are networks, but not all networks are communities. By the same token, all teams are networks but not all networks are teams.

Within the context of an organisation, teams are groups of people who are purposefully brought together to accomplish a task (project teams) or deliver an ongoing service to the organisation (business units, geography-based teams, etc.).

Marcel Kampman believes that, with a physical and digital environment that allows individuals to be happy, engaged and motivated, teams will achieve higher performance levels.

The Dynamic Tension created by the formal and the informal structures, if managed well, is an opportunity: the former provide structure, safety, and scale; the latter will improve creativity, innovation, and engagement. Communities are a way of helping organisations “move from highly structured and controlled work environments to more adaptive and dynamic ecosystems“.

Dynamic Tension by Julian Stodd (2019)

Julian Stodd writes about the potential that comes from successfully managing the Dynamic Tension that exists between formal and informal structures

To summarise

  • Teams, communities and networks are integral to organisations
  • Each is different and requires different approaches when it comes to developing and managing them
  • Strong teams, communities and networks, lead to organisational success by improving decision-making, agility, learning, knowledge sharing and retention, employee engagement, and innovation

Benefits for the Organisation

Teams, communities and networks can all contribute to innovation, personal and organisational learning, knowledge retention, more effective communication, and higher employee engagement.

“Instead of top-down, command and control approaches, [organisations] are using community structures to address complex challenges, which empower individuals, generate high engagement, build trust, and increase innovation.”  |  Rachel Happe

Chart from The State of Community Management 2019

The State of Community Management 2019” report, produced by The Community Roundtable and coordinated by Rachel Happe indicates the functional processes most frequently supported by internal and external communities

Knowledge Sharing and Retention

Tacit and implicit knowledge, the deepest and most valuable types, are only available in people’s heads. Many organisations are working to ensure that what they have learned will not walk away the moment their employees leave.

Formal approaches to capture that knowledge can help retain some of it. However, designing processes to circulate that knowledge and make it available to a wider group of people, is probably a smarter approach, or, at the very least, a really good complement. Knowledge will then be in the network and has better chances of remaining in the organisation.

Teams and communities are vehicles for knowledge and information to be shared in context. They should be safe spaces for people to share what they know, either by working in the narrative, answering questions from colleagues, or volunteering information and knowledge related to what is required or of interest to others.

Back in 2003, Hubert Saint-Onge and Debra Wallace wrote in detail about how Clarica was putting communities of practice at the heart of its knowledge strategy. In The KM Cookbook (2019), one can read how communities of practice are a key element of Syngenta’s LEAP (Learning & Exchange Accelerating Progress), a programme created to “sow [knowledge] back into the organisation” and that looks at learning from leaders, leavers, experience and projects.

Learning and Development

Catherine Shinners's Collaboration Framework

Catherine Shinners’s Collaboration Framework considers the value and type of learning from in teams, communities and networks

Harold Jarche

Harold Jarche
will be at Social Now 2020 to show how “work is learning and learning is the work” and how we rely on social networks to feed curiosity, on communities to support learning, and on teams to solve problems

Any good learning organisation is based on people who are enablers for others to learn”. These are the words of Piers Bocock of USAID. This means that organisational learning depends on groups of people, interacting with each other, sharing their knowledge as a way of developing their own knowledge.

It is through this “social learning”, as Harold Jarche writes, that we co-develop emergent practices, “move from transactions to relationships and foster knowledge mobilization”.

On a slightly different note, networks and communities are a particularly good way of extending and strengthening each member’s own network and chances of development. At Schlumberger, communities of practice provide “the professional networks for your entire career”.


Rachel Happe writes that people are the engines of innovation because they use their unique emotional capacity and qualifications to create, form relationships, negotiate, make decisions, and analyse.

Harold Jarche's model of innovation in perpetual beta

Harold Jarche’s model of innovation in perpetual beta

Innovation relies on pulling together, combining and making sense of data, information and knowledge. Deeper, more radical innovation is more likely to come from the combination of a more diverse set of “sources” – more often found in networks. But trust, openness and transparency are key.

“Innovation is dependent on learning in networks.”  |  Harold Jarche

Internal Communication

Traditionally, internal communication is seen as a required activity to ensure that top messages reach down to everyone in the organisation. This top-down approach disenfranchises employees, and organisations miss out on the richness of a more decentralised and dynamic flow of communication.

Rachel Happe

At Social Now 2020,
Rachel Happe is showing a step-by-step approach to creating vibrant communities that support and challenge people to do their best work in ways that increase learning and innovation

Teams, communities and networks can be great to promote top-down memorandums in a more relatable and less threatening way as messages may be contextualised and their language adapted.

In addition, these social structures are equally suited to bubble up valuable messages from the office, shop or factory floors. The messages can be about local happenings which feed into the organisation’s life narrative, stories which highlight the need for change, or even tiny “nothings” that demonstrate desired practices and behaviours.

The proximity of the message makes it more relatable, promotes engagement and makes the organisation’s heart beat louder.

People are the eyes and ears of the organisation. Teams, communities and networks offer a safe and convenient space for people to voice what is seen and heard. It is almost irresponsible for organisations to ignore, and sometimes even jeopardise, these organisational sensors.

“Creating community includes giving a voice to people who are not seeking to be heard.”  |  Victoria Stoyanova

Employee Engagement

Organisations are all too aware of the decreasing rates of employee engagement. Low engagement means low commitment and, therefore, lower performance levels. It is vital to boost employees’ sense of belonging and levels of engagement.

Communities and networks can help as they foster richer and deeper connections through meaningful conversations, and “create many opportunities to resolve discrepancies and strengthen the sense of belonging”.

To summarise

  • Teams, communities and networks support knowledge sharing and retention, learning and development, innovation, internal communications and employee engagement, amongst others
  • The value derived from these social structures depends on how they are managed and facilitated but also on the culture of their hosting organisations

Challenges and Opportunities

Teams are usually a formal and acknowledged organisational structure. But the same does not necessarily happen with communities and networks.

Organisational Network Analysis can be used to both identify and analyse those organisational structures, very much like an organisational x-ray that reveals “the managerial nervous system that connects everything”, as Valdis Krebs puts it.


Social Now 2019 looked at digital leadership and the different traits of good (digital) leaders. Henry Mitzberg, however, defends that “communityship is more important” than leadership: “great leaders create, enhance, and support a sense of community in their organizations”. Such sense of community, he continues, is a requirement for collaboration.

Rachel Happe would add that it is also a requirement for innovation. “Community-based leadership doesn’t use structural power to exert authority over people, but instead, engages people in the process and by doing so, gives them a stake in the solution. This type of leadership inspires and energizes people to co-create the future together and critically shifts their mindset from risk-avoidance to opportunity-seeking.

Lee Bryant observes that, “although large organisations have slowly begun to recognise and invest in their informal structures, such as networks, communities and distributed teams, they remain wedded to hierarchical management as the formal means to coordinate work”.

This solid marriage can be cause or consequence of many people perceiving communities as threats, specially because “[t]he organic, spontaneous, and informal nature of communities of practice makes them resistant to supervision and interference”.

It can be a risk or an opportunity. In any case, the benefits will outweigh the dangers if leaders are able to adapt, embrace these structures and make themselves active members: not only will they lead by example, they will be aware of and influence what is happening.

“Networked Individualism”

Social platforms are the perfect stage for boosted egos and, simultaneously, the missing gloss to ordinary achievements. Without guidance, and sensible facilitation, there is the danger that leaders, employees, teams and communities transform internal social platforms into simple megaphones for their messages.

Although this can certainly be the way to get them started into the platform, it is key to avoid the “networked individualism” which Henry Mitzberg describes as people communicating readily while struggling to collaborate.

Communicating an event or a decision which has been made is important to keep others aware of what is going on in the organisation. However, Thomas van der Wal argues that, “[i]n the long run, what went into making the decision has more value than the decision”.

It is the organisation’s responsibility to guide individuals and social structures to more advanced stages of collaboration maturity where they are using the digital platforms to work out loud, in the narrative, sharing information and resources, linking them to organisational objectives, and helping and engaging colleagues. At the end of the day, enterprise social platforms will wither away in organisations which fail to reach mature behaviours of use.

Digital Platforms

The present and future workplace is increasingly digital. Organisational social structures are, therefore, required to function digitally. The interactions that characterise teams, communities and networks have to find their way into the digital workplace. Simultaneously, there is an amazing opportunity to power up these structures with new and recreated types of interaction.

In 2003, Hubert Saint-Onge and Debra Wallace identified the organisations’ responsibility to provide an effective technology infrastructure to ensure that each community has “the collaborative tools it needs to support conversations, store and access knowledge objects, and realize other community activities”. Seventeen years later, many organisations are still struggling with that.

Some organisations blame technology and accuse it of failing them. Luis Suarez does not agree. “We have failed it. We have failed it, because we haven’t acknowledged how we need to think bigger, different, more diverse, context driven, accommodating not only the different types of interactions one can expect at the workplace, but also based on the different groups we may be part of, whether individuals, teams, networks, communities, or whatever else. Each of those groupings will have distinctive needs and wants to cater for, which is why we need to start coming to terms with the fact that not a single tool in any organisation would feed everyone’s needs anymore, regardless of whatever the collective.

Despite having made an investment in technology, most organisations are still stuck in processes and behaviours that limit their platforms to a glamorous alternative provider of the same set of basic interactions which does not enhance the power of teams, communities and networks.

[C]ollaboration keeps failing us all” because we insist on thinking about it through old models which no longer apply to the more complex present reality. It is therefore vital that organisations stop blaming the tools and change their “notions and perceptions of what constitutes effective collaboration”.

Despite all that, and like most things, technology is far from being the answer. In fact, as pointed out by Jon Ingham, although internal communities are good responses to complexity, communities which are entirely dependent on digital platforms can only help organisations navigate through simple or complicated conditions, not through complex ones (see Cynefin framework).

How many organisations embrace the opportunity to engage their people in dialogues anchored in key business challenges? How many organisations are using technology and asking the right questions to tap into the knowledge and ideas of wider staff groups? How many organisations are recognising the effective ways in which teams, networks and communities are using the platforms to become and work smarter?

Organisations need to evolve and many are yet to catch up with existing social technologies. But vendors also need to do more and push organisations to be better. Lee Bryant has seen enterprise social tools evolve “from content to communication to connection to collaboration”: he hopes that “the next phase of development will also focus on capabilities” so that organisations can use digital social platforms “to help employees identify, define and design the key digital capabilities that will be the building blocks of the emerging, connected, future firm”.

To summarise

  • Leaders should be aware of the social structures inside the organisation
  • The organisation should support these structures, guiding them towards more mature stages of collaboration
  • Digital platforms can help but will add little value without an accompanying processual and mental shift

To find out more about the topic, join us for Social Now 2020. Join Harold Jarche, Marcel Kampman, Rachel Happe and many other experienced professionals from around the world, who will be there to identify the necessary steps to power up your organisation’s teams, communities and networks.

Stay informed about this coming edition:
subscribe the newsletter or follow us on Facebook | Twitter

Business photo created by jannoon028 –