A community with a more focused topic will usually have only people interested in that topic, whereas the same topic that is covered in a broader topic community, may have lots more people. This fact that you have to trust, and have confidence with lots more people may be a barrier to participation. Another barrier is that you can’t really share the same level of abstraction (wavelength, understand each others way) with lots of people, and it’s a close level of abstraction that really makes a community thrive, as well as a fertile ground for optimal knowledge transfer.
Another thing, is that the topic you like so much in a broad community may be buried somewhere in the community, and the community homepage may not be a “sticky” place for you to visit, as it’s only 25% relevant to you (as you are not interested in the rest of the topic coverage).
When a broad community is a good idea
A community request I have received recently is a great *pure* community of practice as it’s an online place for cross-functional people in different offices to come together. This community is not about deliverables, it’s about people learning, building their knowledge and helping each other out, so they can ultimately be more productive and effective when going back and working on their team tasks.
The name is “Software Architecture and Approaches”. When I first heard this I advised the requester to go for a more specific topic, but he said he had lots to talk about on all different topics within this domain; security, design, SOA, etc…
He ain’t gonna create multiple communities as that’s too many for him to run, and he is more passionate about one or two topics, and only wants to lead a community he is passionate about. Plus he doesn’t know who would be interested yet in these specific topics, so a broad community is a good way to find out when you don’t know these things upfront.
This is a good point, if you don’t yet have a bunch of people interested in a topic, then this is not good grounds to start a community…another choice is to just start your own blog instead. This could one day attract a lot of traffic and interest that a community may one day decide to form.
He also said that when he talks about one topic it may also relate to, and have implications on another topic.
A member he has already got on board wants to talk about SOA, but she really doesn’t know others who are also interested in this topic, so it doesn’t warrant it’s own community, until the day she finds a batch of passionate people who share the same enthusiasm.
But if she creates a forum on it, and talks about it in their proposed “Software Architecture and Approaches” CoP, and finds others who are interested, this could later on then warrant a community of its own
I like this aspect of broad communities that they can be a fertile ground for discovery and new communities.
Who knows in the end you may have so many splintered communities, that the original “Software Architecture and Approaches” CoP ceases to serve a need.
A community is a process, it may organically grow in an unintended direction, or topics may get so busy they need their own CoP.
In an indirect way it’s almost like using a broad space, as a way to discover, attract, and tease out topics people are interested in, and then disband that space into splintered communities.
And we would do this for all the reasons mentioned in the start of this post, in reference to the benefits of specific and focused communities.
Community design alleviates the scattered approach
A difference we have here is that people interested in multiple topics have to join multiple communities, which is no big deal really. Another thing was that some things that are talked about in one community, may be related to another, which again is OK as some people will be members of multiple communities, or at least be subscribed to the others, so awareness of what’s going on in other spaces will be high.
I will say here, that some platforms like Clearspace are getting around this with the use of sub-spaces (sub-communities). Checkout Clearstep, it comprises of two communities, one of them is called Online Communities…but rather than stop here, they have split this into three focused areas (Build, Manage, Measure). This not only makes it easier to browse or organise content, but it allows you to hang out in a topic with it’s own homepage, rather than being buried in the main homepage. Although membership is not limited to the sub-community level, you will find those members that interested in a topic such as “Measure” will be the one’s hanging around there together.
I’ll talk about Clearstep in depth another day, but another thing I like about it, is that it is also a social network where people have profile pages (contacts, details, blog, etc…). This is a great way to discover people and get to know them (read their blogs), which is a fertile ground in getting together and forming a community.
What I want to make clear here, is that if you already know of a bunch of people interested in a specific topic, then create that community. But if you don’t, then taking part in a broad community is a good start (strategy) to test the grounds in potentially attracting people interested in your topic.