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What if a company is a community?

In a board meeting a little while ago we discussed how what we measure to assess our performance as a business affects our behaviour as a team. For example – we measure each team member’s delivery figures for the month and express them as a graph in the monthly operations report. It seems like a useful thing to know as we can see who has been under capacity and who has been over. But looking at the report through a different lens made me realise that what we had created was in fact a leaderboard. That realisation was a light bulb moment as it made me see the design lessons we’ve learnt around building online communities can equally be applied to our company.

In fact, I like the idea of viewing ourselves as a community because that speaks so much more to our human-ness than the idea of a company or corporation. Community implies a group of people operating as individuals with individual needs and wants, but connected together through common interests. Company suggests a single entity into which individuals have been incorporated. I’m sure that business thinkers would be able to define this better – and dispute it, but I’m coming to this as a designer. Maybe it’s to do with the words – as humans we all have a corporeal existence but we lose that sense of bodily independence in being incorporated into the company. Once incorporated and acting not as an individual but as part of a bigger whole perhaps we are then more able to lose sight of our individual ethics and sense of responsibility for what the company does – and how we behave on its behalf.

If instead we see ourselves as a community we can also see that the membership of that community is much wider than the individuals employed by the company. As a business our community includes our colleagues and our clients and also our network – our peers, our alumni, the readers of this blog, people who hear us speak at events and maybe even our clients’ customers. The ties that bind us to the other members of the community may be weaker further from the centre, but the number of these weaker ties bring us access to new ideas and opportunities and makes the community stronger as a whole. Traditional business structures are closed and competitive. Viewing ourselves as a community allows us to operate in a more open, fluid way.

But what does this mean to notions of success? Assessing a traditional company is easy – it’s all about the balance sheet – turnover, costs, profit and in a public company, shareholder value. But is that really all a company is for? What about the people who make up the company – the employees and the customers? How do we measure what they get out of it? If the notion of success focuses only on the balance sheet a company can behave in any way necessary to get the numbers to tell the right story – and we can see that they do.

What would happen if we were to look to community design principles to decide what kind of community we hope to create and then measure our success in achieving that? For a long time I’ve used the Yahoo Pattern Library as a source of inspiration – particularly the Community Design Competitive Spectrum Pattern. This lays out common types of community and the reputation system that might be put in place to support the desired behaviour of the community. One thing that’s apparent from experience is that getting the wrong rewards in place can have a massively adverse impact on behaviour as people start to game the system to earn the rewards they want.

This has parallels with the Leaderboard graph we so unwittingly created – NixonMcInnes as a community sits somewhere between ‘collaborative’ and ‘cordial’ on the spectrum, yet by reporting a leaderboard were we in fact discouraging the sharing of work across all those with capacity and encouraging competitive (and unhealthy) patterns of overwork? So it seems to me that our business performance measures must reflect the health of the community (or happiness), not just the balance sheet.

In the case of NixonMcInnes it might look something like this:

Profit could be measured across the community by combining our own regular metrics of turnover and profit with evidence of the impact our activity has on our clients’ businesses. Happiness metrics could include the percentage of balls in the Happy bucket over time, the average length of our client relationships, average length of employment and net promoter scores from our Client Satisfaction survey.

I also like the thought that this way of measuring and reporting could be applied to other institutions (or communities). As Bhutan uses Gross Domestic Happiness above Gross Domestic Product how could we as a society create and apply more human measures to help us reach a more balanced approach to ‘success’, beyond the purely financial?

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3 Comments

  1. Well put Jenni.

    I have heard it said that the word “company” derives from the Latin meaning “with bread”. That, to me, means a company is a group of people who break bread together – or eat together.

    In our modern thinking we may assume that this is a family – and you are right we don’t have much choice over who is in our family :)

    But perhaps in older societies a group that breaks bread together *is* a community – where most people are there by choice? Where people work together to a common end – for themselves, for others, including those yet unborn.

    Maybe this is an original meaning of “company”? Of course it’s also very close to a modern view of a sustainable business measuring its success according to a triple bottom line.

    My other thought is that measurement like many things also depends on your viewpoint. For example what does a “leaderboard” signify?

    Some might read a leaderboard as a competition against others. It tells me what I need to do to beat others.

    But others might see a leaderboard simply as useful information in a competition with oneself. It tells me how I am doing in comparison with others. I can use that information as I see fit – maybe to try harder, for example.

    Posted 2nd November 2010 at 7:17 pm | Permalink
  2. Interesting concept.

    If you are inferring that ‘collaborative’ is more profitable than any other community model for NM and you could prove a correlation between happiness and profit I think other businesses could follow this route.

    Otherwise it’s an impossible sell for shareholders and business driven by shareholder profit.

    The concept does seem to hold true though with traditional businesses taking the Alan Sugar school of business approach which is firmly set in the Competitive as a model of success.

    Posted 4th November 2010 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  3. hi Al

    I’m not really suggesting that a collaborative model will be more profitable – it’s not really as simplistic as that. I believe that business should be about more than just profit, which means that we need not only to define what a business is for (is it really good enough just to want to make money?) but also how we will know if we are successful. If all we care about is shareholder value then we are decoupling the business world from society at large – and look where that gets us.

    A business should focus on serving its customers – and the best way to do that is to have happy employees who work well together – and believe in the goals of the organisation. The outcome of this might well be increased profitably, but that shouldn’t be the sole driver.

    Joshua Porter wrote that ‘the behaviour you see is the behaviour you designed’, meaning that the actions of the community are driven by the environment in which it exists. Changing the environment changes that behaviour (sometimes in unforeseen ways).
    http://bokardo.com/archives/the-behavior-youve-designed-for/

    For more business brainfood try reading Umair Haque (@umairh):
    http://designmind.frogdesign.com/articles/and-now-the-good-news/the-meaning-organization.html

    Posted 4th November 2010 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

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