A Virtual Community Development Model

Community development as active waiting

Growing a successful virtual community is a lot like tending a delicate rose in your garden.
Both the rose and the community need to be carefully nurtured, fed and encouraged to grow. Both are under constant threats to their continued health and existence. Both will wither and eventually die if not carefully looked after. This is because, despite all our hopes and intentions for them, a rose and a virtual community are both living systems in their own right and will not just thrive and develop on demand – no matter how hard we push! So can you help such a creature grow and develop?

I believe you can using a strategy of “active waiting” and a simple little virtual community development model.

The model is not intended to be rigorous and is based purely on my observations of three natural growth stages I have seen in virtual communities, virtual teams and virtual networks:

  1. The Fitness Club – The Communicating Group
  2. The Soccer Club – The Co-operating Team
  3. The Pressure Group – The Co-Inventing Band

Apologies in advance for the sports metaphors - I would very much welcome suggestions on a set of non-sporting alternatives!

Strategy as active waiting

The latest Harvard Business Review (September 2005)has an article by Donald Sull entitled “Strategy as Active Waiting”.

This is nicely summarised in the Business Strategy Forum Blog.

What the author really means is that we should have our strategic goals and plans well developed and ready but we should not be arrogant enough to try and dictate the precise schedule for their implementation.

Timing is everything and suitable ‘windows of opportunity’ for implementation need to be carefully and patiently listened for and then jumped into quickly and forcefully.

Recognising virtual community growth opportunities

This is also very sound advice for nurturing a virtual community.

Opportunities for growth of a virtual community will appear, sometimes out of the blue, and we should be ready to exploit them when they come.

We should not try and force virtual community growth against the natural cycles - it just won't work!

However we need to be aware what stage our community is at and what the next stage looks like if we are to recognise and take advantage of these opportunities for growth when they come along.

Key stages in a virtual community

The figure below shows four stages of virtual community.


The Co-existing Stage

The first stage shown is really a pre-community stage where a group are interested in being a community but have not yet committed themselves.

The analogy here is somewhat like the rugby scrum - it looks a bit like every man and woman for themselves!

The Fitness Club – A Communicating Group

This is where most virtual communities really start to operate.

I call this “the fitness club” (or any other individual sports club) because in such a club you are mainly using it's shared facilities and equipment more than using it to engage with the other members (at least not whilst taking exercise).

This is sometimes referred as a “vertical network” as the relationships are often mainly between the member and a figurehead in the community rather than horizontally between members.

At this stage the community is much more of a group than a team.

However being a “Communicating Group” is much better than being an uncommitted crowd (as per the Co-existing stage)so it is an important milestone in virtual community development.

The Soccer Club – A Co-operating Team

This is the next growth level I have seen in a virtual community and I believe it is important to try and encourage a community to get to this level.

This is because when it is a “Fitness Club” the relationships tend to be rather hierarchical, formal and weak – leaving the community at its most vulnerable.

I call it the soccer club (or any other team sports club) because in such a club you must play the sport with other members.

People would be surprised if you turned up “just to use the pitch”.

This stage has now the makings of a “horizontal network” as the relationships are developing between members (horizontally) rather than just vertically between members and a central community figurehead.

This stage in my view represents the main steady state of an on-going virtual community which has managed to ‘bootstrap’ itself beyond the Fitness Club.

The Pressure Group – A Co-Inventing Band

This is an advanced level of growth for a virtual community – in fact many virtual communities may never get here (and may never need to get here).

A community may get here for a time to meet a specific challenge then move happily back to being a Soccer Club again.

I call this stage the pressure group because its style and engagement is very intense and focused and reminds me most of the behaviour in single-agenda pressure groups.

For example, a group of parents campaigning for a local swimming pool or a team of mountaineers planning a difficult climb or school children raising funds for an orphanage.

Like most pressure groups this stage does not endure forever – it forms, collaborates, meets (or misses) it’s objective and then dissolves or drops back to the “Soccer Club” again.


I have introduced a simple model to help us recognise growth opportunities in our communities as they come along as part of our strategy of virtual community development through “active waiting”.

This model recognises that virtual communities generally start to operate at a level I call the Fitness Club.

In my experience communities at this level generally need to be encouraged to grow up to the Soccer Club Level for the deeper levels of co-operation and intimacy of relationships which will ensure the communities on-going sustainability.

Virtual Communities can often happily exist for a long time at the Soccer Club level.

Some communities however may jump up, for a season, to the Pressure Group level to meet a specific challenge or opportunity.

Whilst it is great to be part of such a community we need to recognise that this stage is not for all communities and if and when it arises it is generally a transient phenomenon.

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