Montag, 14. April 2014

Virtual Communities of Practice - Start-up and Cultivation

Since the early 90s, Jean Lave's and Etienne Wenger's concept of communities of practice [1] has produced a huge amount of scholarly and more popular literature, first as a theory of learning and later in the field of knowledge management. In the advent of the digital era, communities of practice are not just organized as face-to-face communities but as virtual communities as well and so Wenger et al. [2] re-conceptualized communities of practice for digital environments.

Why are communities of practice so interesting?

A community of practice is a group of people sharing a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. In an organizational context this usually is a craft or a profession. Communities of practice can evolve spontaneously because people come together and engage in gaining and sharing knowledge. Or they can be created with that goal.
An example within an organization is the community of practice which developed around the Xerox customer service representatives. They began exchanging tips and tricks how to repair machines over informal meetings. Realizing the potential, Xerox created the Eureka project a database set up in order to share this knowledge across the global network of representatives. Apparently, the database has saved the corporation $100 million. [3]

What are the characteristic features of a community of practice?

These three characteristics are essential for a community of practice:
  • a domain defined by the members' interest and competence;
  • a community as a result of members' engagement in joint activities like discussing problems and practices, exchanging information and providing support;
  • a common practice, i.e. a shared repertoire of experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing problems etc. [4]
Members of communities of practice are thought to have privileged access to "tacit" knowledge (for instance best practices) that one can't find in formal sources of information like manuals or databases. This tacit knowledge might help avoid mistakes and steepen the learning curve. At least they have a community to turn to in case of problems. Not surprisingly, knowledge management became so important in the organizational context. [5]

It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group and building relationships that the members accumulate social capital. Social capital is a multi-dimensional concept, with both public and private aspects and it provides value to both the individual and the group as a whole. Putnam's concept of social capital for instance has three components: moral obligations and norms, social values (especially trust) and social networks (especially voluntary associations). [6] Applying Putnam's central thesis to communities one might say that a self-sustained community with a stable core of contributors has accumulated social capital successfully.

How do communities of practice differ from other communities? [7]

Communities of practice should not be confused with communities of interest or teams. A community of interest provides a place where people who share a common interest can "go", exchange information, ask questions, and express their opinions about the topic. Membership is not dependent upon expertise - interest in the topic is sufficient. Membership in a project team, on the other hand, depends upon expertise. But typically, project teams have designated members who fulfill a certain role during the project and, hopefully, teams are dissolved once the task is completed. However, the classification isn't always simple: What about a company-sponsored product support forum where heavy users with all sorts of professional backgrounds help one another? Or what about one's own network of professionals on LinkedIn? Wenger gives this guideline (and following the link you can download an evaluation framework):
A personal network, for instance, is rarely a community as people in the network are not likely to have much in common except for being connected to the same person in various ways; and they may not even know about each other (even though they are potentially connected from a networked perspective). Conversely the community of donors to a cause may feel a strong allegiance and identity with the cause they share. They know about each other because they know that there is money flowing toward the cause beyond their own donations. And yet they do not necessarily form a network (except potentially), as there may not be any interactions or direct connections among them. [8]

Are communities of practice really that effective?

Source: Hemmasi & Csanda [9]
Hemmasi and Csanda [9] explored the effectiveness of a community of practice using data from an insurance company that operates in a decentralized structure. Hemmasi & Csanda (2009), Journal of Managerial Issues They found that communities of practice can indeed create value by contributing to increased effectiveness in employees' job performance through greater access that they provide to the ideas, knowledge, and best practices shared among community members. In addition, the results show that committed membership and active engagement in community activities tend to improve the  direct impact of the community on participants' job performance. In turn, it appears, that members who see their community as having a positive impact on their own jobs and or feel more connected with other community members, also perceive their community as being more effective. The sense of identity and emotional  connectedness that community members feel toward their peers in the community, the impact that community involvement has on their own jobs, and the cognitive assessment that they develop of the overall effectiveness of their community are all strong predictors of satisfaction with their community experience. The findings were consisted with studies of existing communities of practice. [10]

How can community management start up and cultivate a communities of practice?

Although the concept had a strong focus on face-to-face communities initially, many of the recommendations Wenger et al. [11, 12] give, apply to online communities of practice as well. In fact some of them apply to online communities in general.

1. Build on a preexisting core group (or develop one): In preexisting social and organizational structures like personal networks or after an event (be it a meeting or a summit) one may be able to develop a passionate core group. Well-respected individuals can help with their personal network and later on with the coordination of the community. A core group is important because it can take on community projects and helps identifying important topics for the community.

2. Mentoring the community manager: The core group is even more important if the community manager is not a practitioner. Only an insider can fully appreciate the issues and challenges at the heart of the domain and the latent potential in emerging ideas and techniques, so a community manager from outside needs the assistance of a mentor.

3. Access to the community: In order to maintain a certain level of discussion,access controls may be an appropriate instrument. In fact, in some communities of practice assuring that members are among themselves may be even vital.

4. Clarify the topic: The focus should lie on topics important to the business and community members. Key thought leaders may be a great help in creating real dialogue about cutting edge issues.

5. Build strong ties among members: When the individual relationships among community members are strong, the events are much richer. Participants who know each other well often come to community events with multiple agendas: completing a small group task, thanking someone for an idea, finding someone to help with a problem. In fact, good community events usually allow time for people to network informally. Well-orchestrated, lively public events foster one-on-one connections.

6. Welcome all levels of participation: Wenger discernes three levels of participation which are fairly self-explanatory: participation in the rather small (10 to 15 %) core group, in the equally rather small (10 to 15 %) active group and peripheral participation (usually the majority). The boundaries are fluid and one and the same member may shift from one level to another because of time restrictions or a shift in the focus of the community. Making it easy to contribute and to access the community’s knowledge and practices may invite free-riding but - on the other hand - they are essential for participation.

7. Allow evolution: The nature of a community of practice is dynamic, in that the interests, goals, and members are subject to change, its forums should be designed to support shifts in focus.

8. Broaden the community's horizon by bringing input from outside: The members and their knowledge are the communities most valuable resource. Nevertheless it is also beneficial to look outside. Thus, practitioners will find new possibilities and even stimulate change.

9. Make the social capital salient: Participation is voluntary and so there must be something in it for the members. Therefore make the value of being a member salient - especially at the beginning.
[1] Lave, J. Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar.
[2] Wenger E., White, N., & Smith, J.D. (2009). Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities. Portland, OR: CPsquare. Google Scholar. Chapter 10 ("Action Notebook")
[3] Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2000). Balancing act: how to capture knowledge without killing it. Harvard business review, 78(3), 73-80. Google Scholar
[4] Wenger E., Communities of practice - a brief introduction. Retrieved March 2, 2014 from
[5] Davenport, T. H., & Prusak, L. (2000). Working knowledge: How organizations manage what they know. Harvard Business Press. Google Scholar
[6] Siisiainen, M. (2003). Two concepts of social capital: Bourdieu vs. Putnam. International Journal of Contemporary Sociology, 40(2), 183-204. Google Scholar
[7] Communities versus teams. (2011). Retrieved March 7, 2014 from
[8] Communites versus networks. (2011). Retrieved March 7, 2014 from versus networks/
[9] Hemmasi, M., & Csanda, C. M. (2009). The effectiveness of communities of practice: an empirical study. Journal of Managerial Issues, 262-279. Google Scholar
[10] Dubé, L., Bourhis, A., & Jacob, R. (2005). The impact of structuring characteristics on the launching of virtual communities of practice. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 18 (2), 145-166. Google Scholar
Gongla, P. & Rizzato, C.R. (2001).Evolving communities of practice: IBM Global Service Experience. IBM Systems Journal 40 (4), 842-863.
Scholl, W., König, C., Meyer, B. & Heisig, P. (2004). The future of knowledge management: an international delphi study. Journal of Knowledge Management 8 (2), 19-35. Google Scholar
[11] McDermott, R. (2000). Knowing in Community. IHRIM journal, 1-12. Google Scholar
[12] Wenger, E., McDermott, R. & Synder, R. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge - Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice. Retrieved February 23, 2014 from

Donnerstag, 6. Februar 2014

(Dis-)satisfaction with the online community - Herberg’s two factors theory in a community context

Intuitively, one would say that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are like two poles on the same continuum. But that is not necessarily so. In the context of job satisfaction and job performance Herzberg developed his two factors theory and showed that there is a set of factors that causes satisfaction (motivators) and another one that causes dissatisfaction (hygiene factors) when absent. [1]. The practical implication is that to improve job attitudes and productivity, administrators must recognize and attend to both sets. The question is whether this theory can be applied to satisfaction with an online community and participation in community life as well.

Herzberg’s two factors theory

The theory posits that there is one set of factors that causes job satisfaction (motivators), while there is a separate set causing dissatisfaction, when these factors are absent (hygiene factors). It is important to know that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not located on a continuum with satisfaction increasing as dissatisfaction diminishes. But they are independent phenomena, more specifically:

  • motivators (e.g. sense of personal achievement, status, recognition, challenging/stimulating work, responsibility, opportunity for advancement, promotion, growth) arise from intrinsic conditions of the job itself and give positive satisfaction, motivation and strong commitment.
  • hygiene factors (e.g. salaries, wages and benefits, company policy and administration, good interpersonal relationship, quality of supervision, job security, working conditions, work life balance) prevent dissatisfaction. They don't give positive satisfaction but their absence gives dissatisfaction. They are extrinsic to the work itself.

In order to find possible motivators or hygiene factors the Critical Incident Technique (CIT) is used. According to this technique, the researcher collects direct observations of human behavior that have critical significance and meet methodically defined criteria. A critical incident can be described as one that makes a contribution—either positively or negatively—to an activity or phenomenon. Critical incidents can be gathered in various ways, but typically, respondents are asked to tell a story about an experience they have had. [2]

The theory is quite intuitive: Imagine you love what you are doing at work. Your work is challenging and stimulating. Your collegues admire what you are doing. And you feel that there is a meaning in what your are doing. But, your boss is a control freak, your office is ugly and loud and within the last four years you haven't seen a pay rise. Can you feel the dilemma?

Herzberg first presented his theory in 1959. Since then it has inspired many studies on job satisfaction and has led to such concepts as job enlargement and job enrichment (a way to motivate employees by giving them more responsibilities and variety in their jobs). [3]

But the two factors theory has been criticized as well. Some studies are critical of the use of CIT as heuristic method or of the implications on job satisfaction and job performance. Others couldn’t replicate the division between motivators and hygiene factors or establish stable sets of these factors. Nevertheless, Herzberg's theory is still very influential. [4]

Herzberg’s theory in a community context

In an exploratory study, Ridings and Gefen (2004) [5] investigated the reasons why people hang out in virtual communities (here: bulletin boards). They found four main reasons:

  • access to and exchange of information, 
  • social support exchange, 
  •  friendship and 
  • recreation.

A complimentary set of motivators might be

  • a large stock of resources,
  • members willing to share their knowledge, 
  • good quality of messages and discussions, 
  • members offering support emphatically, 
  • hanging out together online is fun, 
  • good treatment of new bees, 
  • an entertaining community.

Being member of a community with high quality motivators should be satisfying and lead to further participation.

Possible hygiene factors are perhaps

  • an easily discernable community topic, 
  • the quality of the community management, 
  • the usability of the website, 
  • a good web design, 
  • simple community norms, 
  • real instead of anonymous/faked profiles, 
  • good member visibility.

These factors don’t cause satisfaction with the community. But if they are absent the member feels dissatisfaction.

Wang et al. [6] investigated an online travel community. They wanted to find out why members are willing (motivation) to make active contributions (participation) to their community. Based on extensive literature review and discussions with students twenty factors were identified:

  • low costs of providing information online 
  • sharing enjoyment 
  • gaining a sense of helpfulness to others 
  • seeking/providing advice 
  • satisfying other members' needs 
  • finding friends/peers 
  • product suggestions/evaluations 
  • enforcing service excellence 
  • relationship building 
  • controlling products/service quality 
  • seeking future exchange from whom I provide help 
  • seeking future exchange from anybody in the community 
  • making arrangement 
  • expressing my identity 
  • group attachment/commitment 
  • seeking/providing companions 
  • seeking/providing emotional support 
  • increasing self-esteem/respect 
  • attaining status in the community gaining prestige

As far as I know, Herzberg’s theory has not yet been applied to online communities. Of course, one should be careful if one wishes to apply a well-established theory to a new context it has not been developed for. But in the case of Herzberg's two factors theory it might work and it would give community managers a rationale for tackling community satisfaction issues.
[3] Herzberg, F., Mausner, B., Snyderman B.B. The Motivation to Work. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY USA, 2nd edition, 1959
[4] Buettner, R. (2010). Zu den Einflussfaktoren der Arbeitsmotivation und -zufriedenheit: Eine empirische Studie zu Herzbergs 2-Faktoren-Theory. Google Scholar
[5] Ridings, C. M., & Gefen, D. (2004). Virtual community attraction: Why people hang out online. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 10(1), 00-00. Google Scholar
[6] Wang, Y., & Fesenmaier, D. R. (2003). Assessing motivation of contribution in online communities: An empirical investigation of an online travel community. Electronic Markets, 13 (1), 33-45. Google Scholar

Donnerstag, 23. Januar 2014

Social information behaviour as a Driver of Online Communities

The need for information is one of the reasons why people participate in communities and information exchange (like giving and receiving support) is a social phenomenon. But very often, seekers of information are seen as individuals and the focus in many studies lies on individual information behaviour - omitting socials aspect. Reddy & Jansen [1], on the other hand, argue that more emphasis should be put on these social aspects in information behaviour, that is why they investigate the driving forces that lie behind social information

Individual information behavior

Information behaviour is conceptualized as individual mainly for two reasons: the emphasis on individual rather than collaborative work needs and the interest for the interaction of a single user with some kind of information technology. The most common model  type is the database query model in which a single user issues - according to her/his goal - a specific query against a data repository in order to gain meaningful results. The steps can be described as follows (Marchionini, 1995):

  • information problem identification
  • problem definition
  • search system selection
  • query formulation
  • search execution
  • results examination
  • information extraction
  • reflection/reiteration/stop
This type of model has been criticized on the individual level because many users don’t have clearly defined goals and well-formulated queries and the social context is totally omitted.
A less technological and somewhat more emphatic model is Kulhthau's Information Search Process (1991). The following description is taken from Wikipedia ( It is a literal quote because the description is so vivid:

  • Initiation: During the first stage, initiation, the information seeker recognizes the need for new information to complete an assignment. As they think more about the topic, they may discuss the topic with others and brainstorm the topic further.This stage of the information seeking process is filled with feelings of apprehension and uncertainty.
  • Selection: In the second stage, selection, the individual begins to decide what topic will be investigated and how to proceed. Some information retrieval may occur at this point. The uncertainty associated with the first stage often fades with the selection of a topic, and is replaced with a sense of optimism.
  • Exploration: In the third stage, exploration, information on the topic is gathered and a new personal knowledge is created. Students endeavor to locate new information and situate it within their previous understanding of the topic. In this stage, feelings of anxiety may return if the information seeker finds inconsistent or incompatible information.
  • Formulation: During the fourth stage, formulation, the information seeker starts to evaluate the information that has been gathered. At this point, a focused perspective begins to form and there is not as much confusion and uncertainty as in earlier stages..Formulation is considered to be the most important stage of the process. The information seeker will here formulate a personalized construction of the topic from the general information gathered in the exploration phase.
  • Collection: During the fifth stage, collection, the information seeker knows what is needed to support the focus. Now presented with a clearly focused, personalized topic, the information seeker will experience greater interest, increased confidence, and more successful searching.
  • Search closure:In the sixth and final stage, search closure, the individual has completed the information search. Now the information seeker will summarize and report on the information that was found through the process. The information seeker will experience a sense of relief and, depending on the fruits of their search, either satisfaction or disappointment.


Social information behavior


Social or collaborative information behaviour, on the other hand, comprises activities that a group or team of people undertakes to identify and resolve a shared information need. According to this definition the authors' (qualitative) studies focused on two teams of individuals in a hospital context (a surgical intensive care unit and an emergency department).
The authors distinguish two information environments:

  • the behavíoural environment (ranging from information searching to information seeking with the characteristics: problem [simple, complex], agents [single, multiple] and interaction [direct, conversational]) and
  • the contextual environment (ranging from individual to collective information behaviour).

In this model an external trigger can lead to a direct search by the individual that expects the problem to be simple and that is that. But during the search the individual may feel the need to ask others because she/he initially underestimated the problem and so the whole team engages in collective information behaviour by pooling the individual expertise using different kinds of information technology.
The triggers that shift a mainly individual to a collaborative behaviour are:
  • complexity of information need
  • fragmented information resources (environments where information resources are in several, dispersed systems)
  • lack of domain expertise (the individual has not the required knowledge and needs help)
  • lack of immediately accessible information

The following table summarizes the model:

Possible conclusions for communities with with participants showing strong social information behaviour:
  • Make sure that the community members can see which other members are available at that moment.
  • Facilitate 1:1-communication (messengers, chat, video conferencing).
  • Allow for team-communication (video conferencing).
  • Make sharing the results possible.
  • Visualize the users search process and the contributions of the collaborators.

Addendum (24.1.14): I've just stumbled across Jelly, an app for Android an iOS which seems to be designed exclusively in order to support social information behavior. See for yourselves, here is the link:

[1] Reddy, Madhu C., and Bernard J. Jansen. "A model for understanding collaborative information behavior in context: A study of two healthcare teams."Information Processing & Management 44.1 (2008): 256-273. Google Scholar

[2] Marchionini, Gary. Information seeking in electronic environments. No. 9. Cambridge University Press, 1995. Google Scholar

[3] Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process>

Mittwoch, 27. November 2013

Why People Participate in Online Communities

Why do people hang out online and what motivates them to participate in online communities? There are two very interesting studies that provide some insight into the answers of these questions.(continue reading on The Community Manager)

Mittwoch, 25. September 2013

Social Presence, Social Identity and Participation in Online Communities

In an empirical study from 2006, Shen et al. [1] combined two important concepts - social presence and social identity - in order to investigate their effect on community participation. The structural model revealed that social presence is a decisive factor in creating social identity and that the influence of social presence and social identity on participation is bigger than the fulfillment of information needs (one of the primary reasons why people join a community).

1. Social presence theory [2], [3]

In “The social psychology of telecommunications” (1976), Short, Williams, and Christie analyzed the effect of telecommunications media on communication. They conceptualized social presence as  the degree of salience between two communicators using a communication medium. Social presence varies with the type of communication media and plays an important role in how people interact. Some media have a higher degree of social presence (e.g., video, audio) others do not (e.g., text) - depending upon the extent to which nonverbal and relational cues common to face-to-face communication are filtred out. A medium with a high degree of social presence is perceived as being sociable, warm, and personal, whereas a medium with a low degree of social presence is seen as impersonal.

Subsequently, several other important conceptualizations were developed: for example social presence as:

  • the degree to which a person is perceived as a real person in mediated communication (Gunawardena, 1995);
  • the ability of participants in a community of inquiry to project themselves socially and emotionally, as real people (i.e., their full personality), through the medium of communication being used (Garrison et al., 2000);
  • the degree of feeling, perception, and reaction of being connected by computer-mediated communication to another intellectual entity through a text-based encounter (Tu & McIsaac, 2002);
  • a student’s sense of being in and belonging in an online course and the ability to interact with other students and an instructor (Picciano, 2002).

These definitions appear to be on a continuum between the feeling that someone is perceived as being present that is, simply there or real at one end and the existence of an interpersonal emotional connection between communicators at the other. The differences in how researchers define social presence have significant consequences on how they conceptualize it.

2. Social identity theory [4]

Whereas personal identity is an individual's concept of personal attributes that are not shared with others, an individual's social identity is developed  on the basis of group membership and consists of a shared definition of what attributes the group has and how it differs from others.

The basis of social identity is social categorization, the continuous interplay between how we see ourselves, how we see others and how we are seen by them. Assigning others to a certain social category not just tells us things about them but we find out things about ourselves.

To identify with any given group of people, whether it is an ethnic group or an online organization, we look for similarities between the group members and ourselves. By categorizing ourselves as members of a specific group and identifying ourselves with it, we tend to accept the group’s influence on us and we comply to its norms. On the other hand, as active group members we try to make our influence to  be felt in the group as well. Group norms not only prescribe attitudes and perceptions, they also influence behaviour.

If a group member strongly believes in the group she or he may even work harder to reach the group's goals instead of loafing. Members with a strong identification with the group may become very influential in the group and exert some kind of leadership because other member see them as very prototypical. On the other hand, less prototypical members have less influence and risk to stay on the fringes of the community.

3. The influence of social presence and social identity on participation [1] 

As mentioned in the introduction, Shen et al. combine both concepts and analyze their effect on participation in four different virtual communities of interest. The content of these communities is mainly contributed and only accessed by registered members. The basic functions are browsing, searching, synchronous and asynchronous discussion, multi-media exchanging and voting. Members can attach animated icons (e.g., facial expressions) to better express their feelings, as well as audio and video to enrich their exchanges.

For each individual, they collect the total number of postings, the number of different threads where the postings were made, and the number of new threads created. The participation measures were gathered for a period of two weeks and were scaled by the averages of the associated communities.

The other variables were measured with an online survey using validated scales.

  • For social presence, they used a reflective measurement which consists of 7-point bipolar items such as social - unsocial, sensitive - insensitive and warm - cold. 
  • As for social identity, they adapted the “organizational identity” instrument which consists of reflective items rated on a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”. A sample item is “when someone criticizes this forum, it feels like a personal insult”..

Social presence positively affects the social identity of community members: High social presence makes it more likely to build social relationships among members due to its capability to reduce discomfort, increase predictability and raise the level of affection toward others, thus increasing the possibility to develop attachment to the virtual community.

Social presence directly influences virtual community participation: According to Shen et al. some individual factors may mediate the effects of social presence on community participation, e.g., extrinsic and intrinsic motivation or satisfaction and trust. Furthermore, social presence may exert a direct influence on community participation - a strong sense of social presence makes a virtual community more similar to a real one, the salient social stimuli presented in the virtual community may activate the direct access processing of existing goals or trigger an automatic perceptual interpretation.

Social identity has a positive influence on virtual community participation: In order to maintain a positive self-defining relationship with other virtual community members, he or she will be motivated to engage in behaviors as the other members expected. For a virtual community, a large part of such behaviors is to actively participate in the social interaction and contribute to the community.

4. Managing an Online Community of Interest

Social classification as a prerequisite for social identification can be achieved quite easily in face-to-face communities. A scarf with the logo of a football team is sufficient. In virtual communities much depends on the already more active members. Their communication behaviour and the expressiveness of their profiles shape the perception of the level of social presence in the community and they are the basis for the decision of others to participate.

Interestingly, the influence of information fulfillment on participation is relatively low, even though information seeking is one of the primary reasons why people join a community. But: information fulfillment has a high impact on how social presence is perceived. Unfortunately, this point was not discussed any further in the study. My guess is that the perception of other community members as socially present increases with their willingness to provide information readily. Presumably, it is not even necessary that the information can be used immediately, it is more important that the individual member gets the impression that - if needed - it would get help quickly.


[1] Shen, K. N., Khalifa, M., & Yu, A. Y. (2006, December). Supporting Social Interaction in Virtual Communities: Role of Social Presence. In  AMCIS (p. 527). Google Scholar
[2] Lowenthal, P. R. (2010). The evolution and influence of social presence theory on online learning. Online education and adult learning: New frontiers for teaching practices. Hershey, PA: IGI Global. Google Scholar
[3] Lowenthal, P. R. (2009). Social presence. Encyclopedia of distance and online learning Google Scholar
[4] Code, J. R., & Zaparyniuk, N. E. (2009). Social Identities, Group Formation, and the Analysis of Online Communities. Handbook of research on social software and developing community ontologies.   Google Scholar

Freitag, 30. August 2013

Gamification – What is the benefit for community management?

Gamification is a very young and hot debating topic. The term was not existent before 2010,  a fact that might explain that there are so few empirical studies on this subject. Furthermore, the available studies show mixed results. Apparently the effectiveness of gamification depends on a whole set of interrelated factors (community topic, community type, community size, cultural factors, members' motives and appraisals, the design of the reward system itself etc.). This multitude of determinants makes it difficult to decide whether gamifying one’s own community site may be such a good idea after all ...

Read the complete article on (

A companion to FeverBee's Community Management Course, Community Geek is an exclusive community of practitioners dedicated to sharing knowledge about how to grow and curate successful online communities.

Montag, 12. August 2013

Sense of community in virtual communities

Sense of community (SOC) is a concept in community psychology with far ranging implications for the management of face-to-face communities. It is applied to geographical communities (i.e. neighbourhoods, blocks, colleges) as well as to relational communities of interest where members are brought together primarily by social interaction and not by territorial demarcation. If you google for instance „developing sense of community“ you will see that SOC is a desirable thing because individuals and institutions devote a lot of energy to its creation. So, can this concept be made operational for the management of virtual communities?

1. Conceptualisation of sense of (virtual) community
One of the most prominent conceptualisations of sense of community was introduced by McMillan and Chavis (1986). It was developed for face-to-face communities and it includes components such as
  • membership (feelings of emotional safety with a sense of belonging and identification),
  • influence (exertion of one's influence on the community with reciprocal influence of the community on oneself),
  • integration and fulfillment of needs (beeing supported and giving support, thereby reinforcing one to behave in a manner acceptable to the community),
  • shared emotional connection (positive affect related to community membership, shared history).
People asked about their SOC might give answers like these:
  • Membership: „It is the diversity of people that makes this neighbourhood so unique. There are so many different flavors here and it is these flavors coming together that makes living here so valueable.“
  • Influence: „I have the feeling that it really matters when I say something and that my opinion is taken seriously.“
  • Integration and fulfillment of needs: „I'm drawn to this neighbourhood because we are all connected with one another. The size of our community allows me to see and deal with people that I know. When I need help doing maintenance work i.e. I can always ask a neighbour for help or advice.“
  • Shared emotion connection: „I've been living here for more than twenty years and so do a lot of us in this area. We raised our kids together!“
Researchers like Blanchard and Marcus (2004) extended the SOC-concept to virtual communities, calling the result: sense of virtual community (SOVC). They found similarities, including
  • feelings of membership,
  • integration of needs, and
  • shared emotional connections,
as well as differences:
  • Members reported that recognizing others and relationships with specific other members were important to them.
  • They did however not report feeling that they exerted influence on/were influenced by others.

2. What are the benefits of SO(V)C? (cf. Pretty et al., 2007)
One way of understanding sense of community is as a process in which community members interact, draw parts of their identity from this participation, give as well as receive social support, and by contributing to the common good foster the development of SOC.

On the other hand, sense of community is seen as some type of positive end state and end in itself. And there are some impressive examples of how SOC (SOVC) has a significant role in the health, well-being, and mental health outcomes of populations and sub-groups.

A third aspect is to see it as a predictor of other positive or negative - outcomes. A strong SOC is associated with well functioning communities that are supportive, even though one may not have personal relationships with each individual member. Furthermore, members may continue to have a SOC even though individuals come and go. Hence, sense of community can be an illusive cognition and affect which is not necessarily based on experiencing individual- level transactions.

This is particularly important for communities where members are not attached to one another by personal bonds but where the member is attached to the community as a whole This refers to the distinction of common identity vs. common bond: The distiction is based on the member's attachment either to the group as a whole [common identity] or to particular members of the community [common bond] (cf. Ren et al., 200?).

But communities with a strong SOC may also develop a tendency to turn inward, to exclude members that are different especially in times of need.

3. What are the antecedents of SOVC?
Blanchard reported the results for a model she had tested in two studies in which
  • the identity of other members and themselves (-> membership)
  • observing exhange of support within the community (-> reinforcement/integration of needs), and
  • interacting with other members of the community outside of the virtual community via email
contributed to the SOVC either directly and/or mediated by group norms. McMillan & Chavis had already emphasised the importance of shared values (= norms) for the exchange of support in a community:

"When people who share values come together, they find that they have similar needs, priorities, and goals, thus fostering the belief that in joining together they might be better able to satisfy these needs and obtain the reinforcement they seek. (...) The extent to which individual values are shared among community members will determine the ability of a community to organize and prioritize its need-fulfillment activities. (...) A strong community is able to fit people together so that people meet others’ needs while they meet their own."

4. How can I assess the SO(V)C of my community?
A measure of sense of community is the Sense of Community Index (SCI: Perkins, Florin, Rich, Wandersman & Chavis, 1990; Long & Perkins, 2003). Several other questionnaires have been developed mostly for residential community research (e.g. Sense of Community Index 2). Blanchard developed a questionnaire for assessing the SOVC. An alternative approach was taken by using the reparatory grid technique, a quantitative, phenomenological approach originally developed by Kelly (1955). This involves communities selecting their own constructs for analysis, and residents’ ratings being based on these elements.

So in principle, you could take Blanchard's questionnaire, use a 5 or 7 point likert-type scale and ask your community. Let us suppose for a moment you've done that and the mean value is 2.2. What does it tell you? Not much, unless one knows the mean value of similar communities or unless you have repeated the survey in your community several times which will give you at least an information on the trend. To my knowledge and unfortunately there is no reference database yet.

5. How can I improve the SOVC of my community?
Possible measures for the improvement of SOC can be categorised in line with its determinants although there isn't always an exclusive 1:1 attribution. Please read Richard Millington's blogpost „How to use transferable elements to develop a strong sense of community.“ (


Blanchard, Anita L. (2007) "Developing a sense of virtual community measure. "CyberPsychology & Behavior 10.6: 827-830.

Blanchard, Anita L. (2008). Testing a model of sense of virtual community. Computers in Human Behavior 24: 2107–2123. See also :

Blanchard, Anita L. and Markus, M. Lynne (2004). The Experienced "Sense" of a Virtual Community: Characteristics and Processes. Database for Advances in Information Systems; Winter 2004; ABI/INFORM Global p. 65. See also:

McMillan, David W. and Chavis David M. (1986). Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory. Journal of Community Psychology Volume 14, 6-23.

Ren, Y., Kraut, R. , Kiesler, S. (200?). Identity and bond theories to understand design decisions for online communities.See also:

Pretty, Grace, et al. (2007) "Psychological sense of community and its relevance to well-being and everyday life in Australia." The Australian Community Psychologist 19.2: 6-25.