If you want to understand the difference between a network and a community, ask your Facebook friends to help paint your house. Networks connect; communities care.
Social media certainly connect us to whoever is on the other end of the line, and so extend our social networks in amazing ways. But this can come at the expense of our personal relationships.1 Many people are so busy texting and tweeting that they barely have time for meeting and reading.2 Where do they get the meaning? The answer may lie in lost community—in our organizations as well as our localities.
Marshall McLuhan wrote famously about the “global village”, created by new information technologies. But what kind of a village is this? In the traditional village, you chatted with your neighbor at the local market, face-to-face: this was the heart of community. When that neighbor’s barn burned down, you may well have pitched in to help rebuild it. In the global village of today, the most prominent market is the soulless stock market. And when you click on that keyboard, the message could be going to some “friend” or associate you never even met. Like those fantasy-ridden love affairs on the Internet, this kind of communicating remains untouched, and untouchable.
A century or two ago, the word community “seemed to connote a specific group of people, from a particular patch of earth, who knew and judged and kept an eye on one another, who shared habits and history and memories, and could at times be persuaded to act as a whole on behalf of a part.” In contrast, the word has now become fashionable to describe what are really networks, as in the “business community”—“people with common interests [but] not common values, history, or memory.”3
Does this matter for dealing with the global problems of this world? You bet it does. In his New York Times column in 2012, Thomas Friedman reported asking an Egyptian friend about the protest movements in that country: “Facebook really helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate,” he replied. Friedman added that “at their worst, [social media] can become addictive substitutes for real action.”4 That is why, while the larger social movements (in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or on Wall Street) may raise consciousness about the need for renewal in society, it is the smaller social initiatives, usually developed by small groups in communities, that do much of the renewing.
As for managing in this digital age, as I have written many times, effective organizations function as communities of human beings, not collections of human resources. Of course, all organizations need robust networks, to connect their parts and link to the outside world. For their managers especially, networking and communicating are major aspects of the job. But far more crucial is collaboration, and that requires a strong sense of community in the organization.
We make a great fuss about leadership these days, but communityship is more important. Successful leaders create, enhance, and support a sense of community in their organization, and that requires hands-on management. Beyond an excessive focus on the individual is recognition of the collective nature of effective enterprise.
The new digital technologies, wonderful as they are in enhancing communication, can have a negative effect on collaboration. They put us “in touch” with a keyboard, that’s all. As I wrote in a related piece, managers who rely on that keyboard can lose control of their job, while they drive their practice of managing over the edge.
Electronic communication has become essential for managing around the globe. But the heart of enterprise remains rooted in personal, collaborative relationships, albeit networked by these new technologies. Thus, in localities and organizations, across societies and around the globe, beware of “networked individualism”5, where people communicate handily while they struggle to collaborate.
© Henry Mintzberg 2015 For more on this theme, and on community, see my book Rebalancing Society. For more on managing in general, and in this digital age, see my book Simply Managing. A version of this TWOG appeared earlier this week on druckerforum.org and hbr.org.
1 “…the current body of internet research indicates that the internet has not caused a widespread flourishing of new relationships”; people mostly communicate with others they already know, and when they do meet people on line, the relationships that continue “tend to migrate offline” (D.D. Barney , “The Vanishing Table”, in Community in the Digital Age, Rowman and Litttlefield, p.9, citing Boase ad Wellman)
2 See Marche’s article in The Atlantic “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” (May 2012). He claimed that, thanks largely to ourselves, “we suffer from unprecedented alienation…. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.”
3 Giridharadas, A. (2013, September 22). Draining the Life From “Community”. New York Times.
4 Friedman, T. (2012, June 9). Facebook Meets Brick-and-Mortar Politics. New York Times.
5 J. Boase and B. Wellman (2006) “Personal Relationships: On and Off the Internet”, in The Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships, A. L. Vangelisti and D.Perlman (eds.), Cambridge University Press