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Belinda Gannaway

Breaking bread – a key to social success?

Mural minutes from Creative ConnectionsIs your company a community? ‘Of course,’ fellow NM’ers reply. But that’s easy when you’re NixonMcInnes and the numbers are less than 30. But what if you’re a company of 3,000 or 30,000? Is that a community? And does it matter?

Yes, I would argue, it does. Because communities bring people together. And the act of coming together creates energy – an energy that can drive conversations, innovation and success.

The ConnectingHR Unconference kept coming back to the question last week during discussions around the power of the socially engaged organisation.

It was a day with a broad remit and a range of speakers, plus some fabulous visual minutes from Creative Connection. So I won’t repeat the exercise in words. Instead, here are my take-outs from some of the discussions around employee communities and why they matter.

Common purpose

As Doug Shaw pointed out, the word company comes from the latin ‘cum panis’ meaning ‘with bread’. The story goes that merchants would meet and discuss their business plans over dinner (‘with bread’). Eventually their ventures were named after the dinner meetings.

So the act of sharing a meal created a sense of belonging sufficient for those early tycoons to name their ventures after the occasion.

But when you have companies that sprawl all corners of the world and co-workers that rarely, if ever, mix with more than a handful of colleagues, a sense of community can be hard to muster.

It would be nice if social tools were the impetus that brought people together around a renewed sense of belonging. Unfortunately it’s not like that. If there is no culture of collaboration, tools and platforms won’t change that.

First business leaders need to put conversations back on the agenda. As Gareth Jones, co-founder of ConnectingHR, says: “Up until now it’s been ok not to have the conversations employees want. But conversation is the new currency and it’s time we stopped faffing and started making communication work.”

Community managers? Really?

Community management can be central to the success of a community – at least in the early days. But is this the right way to think about it? Do community managers really ‘manage’ communities? Are they not more facilitators who bring people together, help them see the benefits of engaging and then sustain the conversation with an increasingly light touch? Or, as Charlie Elise Duff from BraveNewTalent suggested, perhaps host is a better? Or, as Beth here suggested, gardeners.

I would suggest the language doesn’t matter. But it is important to clearly understand the best approach to looking after your community if you want it to grow and thrive.

Does social disenfranchise the already disenfranchised?

Building a community of desk-based employees is one thing, but when they’re out digging tunnels, driving trains or building oilrigs it’s different. If access to email or the MD’s ear is already the preserve of some, not others, is there a danger of social tools reinforcing that divide and making unheard voices even more marginalised?

According to one client with a largely non-desk-based mobile workforce, increasing numbers of colleagues are already logging on to the intranet at home (and on the way home, I suspect). But what does it mean to build a community based on that interaction? And is it appropriate to expect employees to want to engage in their own time?


Trust is probably the biggest issue when it comes to building successful communities using social tools. There remains huge paranoia around the risks of transparency. But it’s not just a question of convincing business leaders – or jittery HR folk – to give up their addiction to controlling the dialogue. There is a lack of trust the other way too.

‘What if my boss is listening in?’ ‘Why would I want to live my life in public? ‘Isn’t Facebook for kids?’ ‘Why are we being told to do this?’ ‘I’m already snowed under by email – why do I want to take on anything else?’ All are common objections and need properly addressing before any online community will take off.


So, a lot of questions on the table (and tablecloths). But fewer answers. Instead, I like one comment from the floor (sorry, I would love to attribute but didn’t get it in my notes): “Communities are built one person at a time.”  If you’re looking for one take-out from my day with the ConnectingHR folk, I’d make it: Think big, but start small, because there’s no guarantee that if you build it they will come.



This post was filed under Digital transformation, Events, Internal comms, Working culture Comments are currently closed.


  1. We really must install that oven so we can bake our own bread (hat tip: Tom Nixon).


    Posted 23rd May 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Ha, I thought of you when I heard this explanation of the word ‘company’ and wondered if it had anything to do with the amazing loaves that appear when you’re in the office.

    Posted 23rd May 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  3. Could be ;)

    I also have very high hopes for kitchen in the new office. In fact I think the whole office should be a kitchen :)

    Posted 23rd May 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  4. Hi Belinda! Great post – you pose some thought provoking questions. The size issue remains one of the key things that we all keep coming back to. Im often told that in large companies you cant do many things, least of all build a community.

    But I dont believe that. And whilst I do recognise that going from a large, cumbersome traditional hierarchical organisation where transparency and trust have not been central themes, that is no excuse for not making it so. In my mind it all starts with a conversation. Enabling a conversation is not difficult, you just have to give people permission to speak! And encourage them if they dont believe you lol.

    Great post and thanks for coming along, it was nice to great to meet you.

    Posted 23rd May 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink
  5. Liz Barnes

    Great post Belinda and there’s so much truth in the ‘sharing of a meal’ bringing us closer together. All 3 of my teenage kids regularly post comments on Facebook about the ‘fab fun family feasts’ (their words) when we have friends over – clearly, they value this as part of their community too. And from a work perspective, I cut my teeth in large corporates where we all ‘went to lunch’ together – just 30 minutes of bonding, but so valuable.
    So who’s for dinner? I’ll cook!

    Posted 23rd May 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  6. hi Belinda
    A great piece.
    I used to think that it all starts with openness and generosity.
    Now, having seen how much people have jumped in to help a stranger (me) find someone to do some community mapping for me, i think maybe it starts with ‘asking’.
    Let me know if i can return the favour one day

    Posted 23rd May 2012 at 7:55 pm | Permalink
  7. Thanks Liz, i agree. I think eating is a unifying experience that is a great activity to share across the generations – and to bond individuals and groups in companies too. One of my colleagues Caz has recently introduced team lunches and there’s always a shout out from someone going out for lunch for anyone wanting to join. It’s a great human thing isn’t it? How do we bottle that and make it work in other ways?

    Posted 23rd May 2012 at 8:08 pm | Permalink
  8. Thanks Chris

    Posted 23rd May 2012 at 8:09 pm | Permalink
  9. Thanks Gareth, yes, keep the faith and keep at it. Because if we stop believing we will only reinforce the message that nothing can change.

    Posted 23rd May 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  10. Victoria Richardson

    Really interesting to read this – as I’ve been wondering about community a lot recently – having moved to a new land far away from the community I had no idea I was so embedded in. Religious gropus are very good at welcoming and integrating new arrivals – but where’s the equivalent if you’re not a church goer? And I’ve been thinking about the viability of community currencies too. But the thing that I keep coming back to is that successful communities share a common belief. So maybe that’s one of the things that is so hard to scale in a business/work environment?

    Posted 24th May 2012 at 3:44 am | Permalink
  11. Hi, thanks for the comment. Yes, common belief must be central to this I guess. And so difficult to scale without diluting – not least because we’re all so different in outlook and motivation. Ironically that disparate thinking is what organisations would benefit from drawing on…. a conundrum

    Posted 24th May 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink
  12. Vic – you raise such interesting questions. I too have been thinking about this, for years actually. After turning over the same question you pose, I ended up thinking about creating a non-religious religion because through religious friends and also through experiences like at the rugby club I’ve seen the power of communities, and wonder how we can bring that back.

    On the shared belief thing, I personally feel that’s clearer. I think great organisations unite diverse people under share values, but more powerfully, with shared purpose.

    Today in Copenhagen a guy from Medecins Sans Frontierres talked about their work in the field. Doctors typically have to resign to do a 9 or 12 month tour, yet they do – and he described how you may have a Kenyan nurse, a Danish doctor, a French surgeon and so on – very diverse background, practically voluntary, and all working towards the same purpose under incredibly difficult working conditions, and compromising their careers to do so.

    So I wonder if the currency can be the shared meaning?

    Posted 24th May 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  13. Lovely post. Very interesting and so on the money. Yammer has a LOT to answer for IMHO!!!

    One thing I’m wondering is if PR firms call themselves “consultancies” because the sight of bread (and carbs) would not, technically make them a com-panis…

    Posted 24th May 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  14. Victoria Richardson

    Will – yes – that’s what I’m thinking. Currency is so powerful and (to hugely over simplify) today’s technology makes it so much easier to distribute and manage non monetary currency. So your community is the equivalent of the royal mint – or something : )

    Posted 25th May 2012 at 12:56 am | Permalink
  15. Check out There are others – this one is Brighton-based.

    Personally for me, currencies are important and fun e.g.

    But ultimately I think community is much more than currency in a monetary sense.

    Currency means flowing – it is a process of change and being in something. You have to *join* a community – and be in it and stay in it.

    It is a flow – an experiential flow. Like a twitter feed perhaps – but ultimately much, much richer.

    Posted 28th May 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

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