Moving beyond community engagement for online science collectives

It’s time to support the passion of the scientist


Some months ago I wrote about how scientists as a group on the internet behaved a lot like a certain class of groups; people who had been diagnosed with fatal diseases. The point of that essay was to illustrate that scientists have needs that go well beyond simple community. And I wrote it in part because I had been involved with several projects that had announced as their mission to create online communities for scientists, to develop strategies for promoting community engagement, or to train people to do this. As “community” can be described as a container for shared cultural practices, I can reaffirm that scientists really do need such containers in the process of reflectively reinventing the cultures of science. But they also need much more than communities to support their own quests to perform their science.

CommunityDatabase.001In organizational management theories, “community” (such as a “community of practice”), is useful for management as a tool to improve worker engagement, and it also makes workers more willing to share their tacit knowledge, which can then be recorded as institutional memory. “Engagement” in the corporate sense describes a positive emotional alignment of the employee with her work and co-workers. Engaged workers are said to be more productive (there is evidence for this), and so programs aimed at increasing their numbers have become routine. A somewhat more aggressive form of engagement is called “stakeholder alignment” which looks to build engagement for a specific project. This engagement helps projects move through implementation without hiccups.

“Community engagement” also extends the notion of engagement to customers or service users, in the drive for brand loyalty (in this case it’s also known as “customer relationship management”). At a time when customers have simple, powerful means to compare prices and ratings, forging a durable emotional alignment between the company and its customers becomes even more valuable. The same is true in the non-profit world where a new army of “community engagement managers” now works to keep donors loyal and their wallets open.

On the upside, the best community engagement programs support an open dialogue to improve the qualities of the workplace, or the product or service. There is a give, and not just a take here. On the down-side, the effort to promote engagement can entail a (seemingly) unending amount of emails or tweets or whatever, designed to remind workers or customers of why they need to be even more engaged.

Scientists show up at work or online already fully engaged… in their own research. They don’t need the offer of a group tour rate to cruise around New Zealand on a boat, nor another term life-insurance policy. What they need is to follow their passion: the passion of the scientist, of the knowledge explorer.

DUP402_Worker-Passion_vFINAL3John Hagel III has recently offered research suggesting—as I will show below— that scientists are actually unavailable to be engaged; that the community engagement efforts of professional associations and academic publishers will necessarily fail, and for a good reason. Perhaps for the best reason. Hagel’s argument is supported by a long-term research project he helped lead at the Deloitte Center for the Edge. See: Shift Index. See also: Unlocking the Passion of the Explorer.

Hagel notes that engaged employees or engaged customers are those who report they are happy with/in their current job, or with the current product/service. They have achieved a static form of satisfaction. From this disposition they can be relied upon to work harder or to buy more. After decades of thousands of corporate engagement programs across the US, only about 30% of employees (in their survey) self-report as engaged. The bulk of the remainder are unhappy for a variety of reasons. However, a few who are not engaged include those who come to work or to the marketplace following their own passions. Hagel is most interested in three passionate dispositions that he claims can add a lot of value to a company in today’s emergent economy, well above the return on any engagement program. Combined, these dispositions form what he calls “the passion of the explorer.” I would extend this description to include knowledge explorers: scientists.

Hagel (op cit) writes:

This form of passion has three components:

  • A long-term commitment to achieving an increasing impact in a domain
  • A questing disposition that creates excitement when confronted with an unexpected challenge
  • A connecting disposition that motivates the individual to systematically seek out others who can help them to get to a better answer faster when confronted with an unexpected challenge

That’s a powerful combination. People with the passion of the explorer are never satisfied or happy with what they have accomplished. What excites them is the next challenge on the horizon—it’s an opportunity to achieve more of their potential and take their impact in the domain to the next level. They are constantly seeking out those challenges and connecting with anyone who can help them address the challenge.

Passionate employees (in Hagel’s sense) are predictably unhappy with the status quo. Of course, an original meaning of “passion” is “to suffer.” They are necessarily immune from becoming engaged, and, I would guess, reactive to attempts made to engage them. In a 20th Century mode, these are not ideal employees. But the Deloitte study claims that these are precisely the type of employee needed for a 21st Century corporation.

In the academy, these are the scientists and the intellectuals who are passionate about their research, who are eager to teach others, and who are resource-aggressive for any new knowledge they can acquire. Attempts to improve their “engagement” in some form of community will find them refractory in the extreme. Gamification will leave them merely irritated. Emails to them will be deleted unread. The only community these scientists will really join, and then with some hesitation are those they own and manage by themselves for their own purposes. They are happiest when they can be connected to others who share their specific objects of study, and even there, their discussions point to unknowns and pain points in the research process.

Passion1How then can these passionate scientists be encouraged to connect, to coordinate their efforts, and collaborate online? What skills and knowledge do academic societies and universities need to acquire to move beyond engagement in order to unleash the collective intelligence of these scientists?

One model for such an organization is ESIP (Earth Science Information Partners). This year, ESIP is celebrating its twentieth year of supporting Earth science data use. The model ESIP uses is simple at one level but really complicated as it unfolds, because it is led by each and all of its member organizations and active science participants. Here are some ground rules that have worked well for ESIP.

The ESIP model for nourishing the passion of the knowledge explorer.

  1. Active ownership by the members, not by some board or background institution.
    Members determine the long-term goals and immediate activities. Each member is a CEO of ESIP. ESIP focuses on Earth science data. Each member can bring his/her passion for their part of this domain to the table. ESIP supplies the table.
  2. Ultra-low-threshold for participation in real-time science collectives.
    ESIP calls these “clusters”. Any group of members can call a new one into existence in a day or two. ESIP can handle up to fifty clusters at a time (more than this and the calendar gets ugly). Members are challenged to bring their full knowledge and demand the same of others. There is a lot of complexity here; clusters variegate according to the needs of their members.
  3. On-line asynchronous collaborations as the norm.
    We have this thing called “the internet.” No need to fly people around for workshops, unless this makes really good sense to do.
  4. Two actual meetings a year, with an emphasis on social interaction and interpersonal time.
    These are where ESIPers become friends and learn to laugh together. No papers are presented. Breakouts are for information sharing and learning. Networking is intense at ESIP meetings. With several thousands years of Earth data experience in the room, it’s the best place on the planet to get connected to others who have similar problems or interests. Two meetings a year keep the whole group more active throughout the year.

Open and Equal Underneath

Underneath all of this activity at ESIP is a total commitment to being open: open, transparent self-governance, open research objects, open sharing of knowledge and problems. Also apparent is an appreciation for each member’s needs and contributions. Early career and late career scientists engage in active conversations that can lead to new collaborations. In my next blog, I’ll discuss how open sharing and fierce equality can support new/old cultural norms for science.

Think of science like an incurable intellectual disease (Part 2 of 3)

Or, why you’re funding the right thing—the wrong way.

Ideas aren’t the only things having fun at ESIP

Part Two: The NSF and NIH spent a billion dollars funding science workshops last year*, and all I got was a lousy white-paper.

Link to Part ONE

A little recap. In Part One we discovered that the most engaged groups online were not communities as much as they were collectives. Their engagement was already built-in because these groups were formed by individuals who shared life-threatening, or life-style challenging medical diagnoses. I then made an analogy to science, suggesting that we treat science like a life-style challenging intellectual diagnosis. The idea is that scientists who go online to do science are likely to want to create collectives rather than join online communities. I also mentioned that we still need community.

There is a larger story about science becoming hyper-competitive, and about the fear of being scooped if you share your data, and the whole neoliberal warping of the norms of science. I’m not going to delve into nor dispute this story here. Instead I am going to point out that significant scientific funding and scientist participation in collectives can already be evidenced in the activity of hosting scientific workshops to address important, shared issues. Science workshops are a major current expression of the value and need for science collectives. Workshops are where scientists gather in place to collectively respond to challenges they face in their research.

Like many of you reading this, I have travelled to and participated in several workshops over the past decade. I’ve met a lot of really smart people. Shared gallons of really bad coffee. Had more than a few beers after long, long days of somewhat-facilitated work. And I have spent considerable time helping write reports and white-papers. Most of these papers I never saw again. A few got published. Some workshops are more successful. Some are a shambles. I am currently planning a workshop (charrette) for next summer.

As a mode of collective science, there are times when a workshop makes perfect sense, and maybe always will. What I will propose below, however, is that there is a way to make the great majority of workshops unnecessary, by funding and building science communities instead.

Just as digital journal articles have acquired their granularity and an arbitrary scarcity based on the history of printed journals, workshops have acquired their own granularity and scarcity. Here are some of their limits:

  • Workshops need to have enough “work” to do to fill 1-1/2 to 2 days of effort (to justify 2 days of travel). You can’t do a half-day or, say, a twenty-day workshop;
  • Workshops need to support say 16-34 participants, and these scientists must be available at the same time;
  • Workshops get funded to explore science research topics “important” enough to justify their $40k budget.  Other collective issues and needs are not currently very fundable.
  • Workshops need to have a topic that is still an issue months after the proposal submission.
  • Workshops require moving people around in airplanes.
  • Some fraction of workshop proposals don’t get funded at all.

Workshops are a product of Twentieth Century science. Science before the internet. Science before someone figured out how to let scientists create their own collectives online at no cost. That’s right NSF and NIH funders; there is a way you can support thousands of self-organized online workshops with a net marginal cost of zero. Well… zero, that is, after investing about 20% of the current outlay for workshops to support several dozen self-managed science communities.

We can explore a working model for this Twenty-First Century strategy. Real lessons already learned and ready to be copied across other research domains. A model that already supports better, more effective, and more nimble collectives than the current workshop model.

One example we can explore today is ESIP

The working model here is the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP). ESIP runs two community meetings a year, with funding from NASA, NOAA, and USGS. These meetings are based on member-submitted sessions, and offer ample time for informal networking. The meetings are intentionally held in places surrounded by restaurants, coffee-shops, and taverns. These occasions of physical co-presence are highly valuable. They are where ESIP builds its culture.

The semi-annual meetings offer enough face-time for community members to build the personal connections and interpersonal trust that can sustain hundreds of productive online interactions. Some members go to every meeting, some once a year, some every couple years. While a great amount of work is exhibited and done at these meetings—several workshops (from 1/2 day to 2 day) are also held at these meetings—they are also social gatherings of the self-governed community. Spaces of conversation. Places where, as Matt Ridley says, “ideas go to have sex.” The real work of ESIP happens when members decide to run their own workshop-like online groups called “clusters.”

Clusters are a model for the future of online science collectives. They have the virtues of being free, instant, active, and nimble (See: Appendix). They can merge with one another or diverge from their original intent as desired. They have no requirements for a deliverable, except that they reward the services of the volunteer time they spend. And so they are motivated to get real work done. Being surrounded by the much larger community that spawns them, they can grow to whatever collective size they need. And when their work is finished they disappear, leaving their findings in a discoverable location on the community wiki, and/or published in science journals.

The key to ESIP clusters is that they are grounded by a community that supports a shared vision and shared norms. This fosters teamwork that can better avoid becoming dysfunctional.  Not all clusters will accomplish what they originally intended. Some will accomplish much more than that.  ESIP has two dozen clusters running at this time. (Note to NASA and NOAA: that’s like running 24 workshops, which would cost funders about a million dollars to do independently.)  ESIP could support a hundred clusters without adding additional infrastructure. Note: the use of clusters as a form of science collective is a practice that is still open to innovation.

A while back I wrote a list of the returns on investment for funding community growth in virtual science organizations. I need to add this return to the list: fund and grow community and it will generate any number of science collectives that can accelerate understanding and innovation within that science arena.

In a pre-internet world, funding several thousand physical workshops a year helped fill some of the need for science collectives. In the future, internet-enabled science could be based on scientist-led communities that each spawn hundreds of active online collectives as these are needed. Imagine a couple hundred ESIP-style communities, funded at a million dollars a year each, and every community supports a hundred clusters. For a couple hundred million dollars, agency funders can get an equivalent ROI of their current billion dollar funding. The question is this: will new modes of internet-enabled science collectives (clusters) drive a change in the funding model?

Six more lessons learned:

  1. Cluster-like groups can become an important mode of online collective work across the sciences, with huge savings in time, money, and effort.
  2. When funders support travel to community-run meetings that grow a culture of sharing and trust, they enable these communities to host their own online collectives. Funders will save hundreds of millions of dollars by NOT directly funding workshops.
  3. Each additional cluster can be started with a zero marginal cost (based on existing support for backbone community organizational tools and services).
  4. Funders and community staff coordinate among these clusters to amplify the impacts of their results.
  5. Funders encourage cross-community online clusters for trans-disciplinary science.
  6. Funders can target some travel and other support to improve diversity at the community level. Staff work to nudge diversity at the cluster level.

Coming Soon: Part Three: Platforms and Norms: There’s a commons in your science future

Preview: Science is broken: Who’s got the duct tape and WD40?

*I’m just estimating here. I found about 5000 active independent NSF funded workshops listed on the website, and popped in an average of $40k each. I then doubled this to account for workshops organized inside funded projects, synthesis centers and networks. The NIH budgets for workshops are not so easy to pin down, but I’m guessing they are slightly higher than the NSF, since the overall budget is significantly higher. It would be great if I could get real numbers for all these. Not even counting NASA, NOAA, DOE, etc..

Appendix: Comparing Clusters to Workshop RFPs


How about a little democracy for your virtual organization




What follows is the text from an unfunded NSF proposal in 2008

We had offered to assemble a knowledge resource for NSF-funded virtual organizations to create governance systems that were “open, trustworthy, generative, and courageous” (taking the lead here from Maddie Grant and Jamie Nodder’s book: Humanize). The idea was to raise the level of knowledge and awareness of NSF program managers and funded PIs to the challenges and rewards of creating actual democratic governance when they build a community-led, volunteer-run virtual science organization. The operant word above is: “unfunded.” From recent events it looks like the NSF still could use a broader purview of the role of governance in its funded networks.

New Knowledge is Essential to guide Governance Plan Decisions for future CI Projects

Building the cyber-social-structure that supports cyberinfrastructure projects is equally important as building the information technologies. While critical-path project management might be sufficient to get the code done, it takes community engagement to get that code used. Every project that uses “community-based” research or promises to “serve a user community” needs to consider the issue of project governance outside of critical-path task management. However, a search for the term “governance plan” on the NSF website (January 5, 2008) shows that only five program RPFs (ITEST, PFC, MSP, CREST, and RDE) have ever asked for a plan for project governance. Even in these cases, governance was associated with task management, rather than community engagement/building. Other large scale NSF CI projects such as the DLESE digital library effort, which were/are centered on community-based content development, have had no requirement (nor guidance) on matters of community-based governance. The simple fact is this: the knowledge that would enable the NSF to give guidance to CI/VO projects about community governance planning and execution does not today exist.

Today, there is no place where NSF Program Managers or project PIs can go to gather the knowledge required to make an informed decision on a community based/led governance plan for a proposed project. The literature on VO project/task management and communication has grown considerably of late (See: Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1999), Monge and Desanctis (1998)). However, the role of community participation in decision making for VOs is mostly undertheorized and poorly understood. The Virtual Democracy Project will produce useable knowledge that the NSF and project PIs can use to make concrete decisions on the issue of community-based governance.

Dialogic Democracy in the Virtual Public Sphere

The Virtual Democracy Project centers its work on a novel extension of the theory and practice of “dialogic democracy,” as this occurs within virtual organizations (VO). This term was coined by Anthony Giddens, who wrote in 1994, “…it is the aspect of being open to deliberation, rather than where it occurs, which is most important. This is why I speak of democratization as the (actual and potential) extension of dialogic democracy—a situation where there is developed autonomy of communication, and where such communication forms a dialogue by means of which policies and activities are shaped.” The notion owes much to Habermas’s (1992) notion of the role of conversation in the public sphere (see also: Calhoun 1992).

Large-scale VOs (such as digital libraries and national collaboratories) are created outside of single institutions. They serve as bridges between communities and organizations. In order to be truly interdisciplinary (and/or inter-organizational, inter-agency, or international), they require an external position to their constituent groups. They become, in fact, “virtual public spheres” where discussions concerning the needs and goals of the VO must avoid collapsing into competing voices from within the various communities to which the members also belong (academic disciplines, universities, etc.). A VO of any scale engages this virtual public sphere whenever it proposes to use “community-based (or -led)” research or outreach.

Just as the Public Sphere opens up the space for dialogic democracy in the modern nation-state (Calhoun 1992), the virtual public sphere inside the VO opens up the dialogic space necessary for authentic community-based governance. How is this virtual public sphere created and sustained? How are practices within it enabled to shape policies and activities of the VO? How does this governance effort interact with the project management effort? These are questions that many VOs must face or ignore at their own risk.

Which form of governance is right for your CI effort?

A funded project’s policies and activities can be shaped and decisions made in many ways. When these are made through open communication among peers, a form of democracy is achievable. Conversations, commentaries, discussions, multiple opportunities for feedback into the decision process: practices such as these mark the emergence of a dialogic democracy within a VO. Fortunately for researchers, dialogic democracy is not a subtle, hidden practice. The implementation of community-led governance is a visible, recordable, completely reflexive event. This means that it’s absence is also markedly noticeable. Ask any member of a VO who makes the decisions for the project, and the answer will reveal the presence or absence, the strength or weakness, of dialogic democracy in that organization. Examples of strong and weak community governance in VOs are available for study.

Take, for example, two large, currently active VOs that have chosen completely different governance structures. The Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIPFED) uses dialogic democracy as the basis of all of its workings. Its members spent three years creating the organization’s Constitution and Bylaws (ESIP Federation 2000). By contrast, the National Science Digital Library (NSDL), early in its founding period, chose not to embrace community-led governance, even though this was prominent in early discussions (NSDL 2001). How important is/was dialogic democracy to the work and the sustainability of VOs such as the ESIPFED and the NSDL? How much will this have an impact on future CI-funded VOs? How does the NSF manage funding when this also needs to be managed through community-based governance structures? As a part of the Virtual Democracy Project, PIs (past and present) from the ESIPFED and the NSDL will be surveyed about the role of dialogic democracy in these organizations.  The Virtual Democracy Project will be the first NSF funded effort to look at the value of and evaluate the practices and the return on investment of dialogic democracy practices (or their absence) in existing VOs.

Software/services with built-in democracy features

While many social networking and peer feedback software services appear to offer functionalities that can be used as-is within community-led governance efforts, democracy places its own requirements on the channels and administration of communication resources. In addition the need for active communication among peers there is a new need for appropriate monitoring of these channels to ensure that their use is transparent and sufficient to support minority voices and sustain a record for review and for possible redress.

The Virtual Democracy Project (VDP) provides paradigm-shifting research for both social-science and computer-science research approaches. The application of the public-sphere based dialogic democracy model to “virtual public spheres” within VOs represents a novel research perspective for CI governance issues. The software services that constitute the vehicles for peer interaction need to also be democratically available for members of VOs, just as the files and folders, the rooms and chambers: the venues that inform the councils of government need to be available for citizens.

Computer scientists on the VDP team will be evaluating available social networking and peer-evaluation services to devise ways for software/services to be open to community inspection. Other software issues include maintaining the privacy of online voting records while allowing for independent validation of results, and maintaining logs of more public member contributions for proper attribution and rewards.

Geography offers a particularly useful domain for VOs that include unstructured crowd-sourcing (such as Yahoo Maps, Wikimapia, and geo-tagging on Flickr). Thousands of strangers every day add nodes and layers to Internet maps that are openly shared. The role of community -building/-governance practices that would promote reliable management of these voluntary community contributions for scientific research offers a window into the very front end of Web 2.0 development.

New IT services are generally built according to the emerging needs of users. Through the proposed research, new user needs for IT in support of dialogic communication will certainly emerge. Because of the dual requirements of privacy and attribution, one can predict that these software services will require novel thinking about database structures and security. The need for non-technical persons to have confidence that information assembled by the VO to inform its decisions is accurate and reflects the contributions of its members requires the construction of new diagnostic tools that can monitor software services to look for evidence of tampering or rigging. A whole new set of questions and concerns will inform the next generation of IT based social networking services that will need to meet new standards for use within VO governance structures.

Meeting concerns for the future of an inclusive cyberinfrastructure

This research effort will have immediate benefits for the remainder of the CI effort, as its outcomes will lead to practical guidance about which forms of governance might best be applied to any proposed CI program/project. Where the proposed effort embraces community participation, the activity of governance for community-building can be better budgeted for time and labor and also timing. Democracy also takes time. A three-year project that starts community-building in year three will probably fail in this task. The larger question of how much should a government agency spend on community-building efforts for any project also needs to be addressed. Planners and program directors will be able to turn to the site for decision support.

Where issues of community participation and dialogic democracy really come to the fore is in practices designed to improve and reward the efforts of underrepresented communities and individuals within VO decision making. Assuming the goal is actual inclusion of a diverse range of voices and interests in the decision process, authentic (and authenticatable) democratic processes are an obvious need and solution. The Virtual Democracy Project will explore the use of dialogic democratic practices as a feature of building a more inclusive cyberinfrastructure.

A final note, however, is that democratic practices also can inform and potentially improve communication by building community (and so, trust and identification with project goals) within the core group of PIs and Co-PIs (Wiesenfeld, et al 1999). There are potential benefits to the core task management effort that need to be considered in any cost-benefit decision.

Photo Credit: Backbone Campaign (CC general 2.o)

Welcome News for Your Science Agency: The benefits of not funding the work of this virtual organization


Science agencies fund science.

Usually this is done directly through funding research. Sometimes new facilities are funded, or larger centers.  What I want to talk about are some important science-related activities that cannot, indeed must not be funded in order for them to succeed.

If you are guiding a science agency, then the notion that you can achieve certain high-value science goals only by not funding them may be news to you. It should be welcome news. In fact there are enormous ROI potentials you can only realize when you can refrain from adding money to the mix. There is a caveat here. While you cannot fund these, you also cannot manage them. Instead, they will govern themselves.

What I am referring to here is a new form of volunteer science/data virtual organization. Drawing their members from a broad swath of experts, led by the community they build (through a governance they own), and powered by volunteers, these associations offer agencies and the academy new forums for scientific discussion, knowledge management, and collective intelligence.

The oldest and best of these that I know about is the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners, sponsored by NASA and NOAA in the US. More recently there is the global Research Data Alliance, with significant sponsorship from Europe and elsewhere. The NSF is also spinning up EarthCube in the geosciences.

Let me be clear. These organizations still need support. All of these organizations require sponsors to pay their staff and expenses; there are websites and teleconferences, and some face-to-face meetings: all the tools of communication and collaboration. But the activities, the occasions for trust building, the growing sense of community, and the actual work: these are accomplished by the volunteers for themselves without being paid.

Volunteers in these organizations also realize a return on their investment. In fact, each and every volunteer should get more than they give. This math is driven by the network effect and some other stuff. That’s another blog, I’m afraid.  Here I am writing to you: the agency manager who can finally get something for almost nothing!

Here are Seven Things…

…your science agency can get only by not funding them directly, but through supporting a community-led virtual organization of scientists/technologists:

  1. Your agency gets to query and mine a durable, expandable level of collective intelligence;

  2. Your agency can depend on an increased level of adoption to standards and shared practices;

  3. It will gain an ability to use the community network to create new teams capable of tackling important issues (also=better proposals);
  4. Your agency can use the community to evaluate high-level decisions before these are implemented (=higher quality feedback than simple RFIs);
  5. Social media becomes even more social inside the community, with lateral linkages across the entire internet. This can amplify your agency’s social media impact;
  6. Your diverse stakeholders will be able to self-manage a broad array of goals and strategies tuned to a central vision and mission; and,
  7. You will be able to identify emergent leadership and potential new employees.

Bottom Line: Sponsoring a community-led, volunteer-run science organization offers a great ROI. There are whole arenas of valuable work to be done, but only if nobody funds this directly.

Disclaimer:  The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the contributor alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of EarthCube’s governance elements, funding agency, or staff.

Lead your virtual organization from behind, and they will drive you forward

The back of the bus

In March, 2013, David Reid at Palantir tweeted a quote: “Drupal’s community is a bus driven by the collective screams of its passengers.” At first glance, this seems really unfortunate. But on reflection, there are some great things going on here. First, it’s a bus, not a limo. Second, it’s filled with passengers. Third, they are passionately engaged in the destination of the bus. And fourth, the bus is responding to them. In short, the Drupal community is doing a lot of things right. 

This tweet took me back to a sunny afternoon in Berkeley at BADCamp. I was in front of Dwinelle Hall (where I first met my wife way back before there was an Internet) talking with Jacob Redding, who, at the time, was the Executive Director of the Drupal Association. I had recently finished Jono Bacon’s book, The Art of Community, taken from his experience helping to lead the community of developers who support the Ubuntu distribution of Linux. I mentioned to Jacob that, compared with Ubuntu, Drupal did not seem to be grounded in a common vision that was written down as a statement somewhere.

Jacob said that the Drupal community doesn’t have a single vision statement but the leaders of the project each may have their own. The Drupal project does have a mission statement ( In the project there is a lot of non-visible leadership. The Drupal Association is a good example of that. The Association does not guide or direct the project, but it certainly does watch what is happening with the project and provides the necessary support and services to either sustain momentum on areas in the project or encourage more involvement. “You can say the Drupal Association is leading from behind,” he said.

There are visionaries across the Drupal developer network, dozens of active people who are building new tools and pushing for better code. There are occasions in the year (at big Drupal Camps or at DrupalCon) and moments in the development cycle (sprints and telecons, in discussions on and elsewhere) where these leaders would come forward with their visions, and, at some point, a decision would happen. But the Drupal Association, which runs DrupalCon and hosts, is not out in front breaking trail for these decisions.

I called Jacob last week to get some clarity on this “leading from behind” technique. I might be involved in a grand experiment on governance that the NSF has fostered. It’s called EarthCube, and it proposes to corral all of the geosciences and environmental sciences under a new organization that can manage and promote the multi- and transdisciplinary sharing of data and knowledge. To bootstrap this effort, a seed of governance will be funded. In the first months, this governance kernel will need to get out in front and open up online opportunities for thousands of scientists to step into new leadership positions and get to work. In the subsequent months, the funded governance kernel will need to step back and lead from behind as the community finds its own governance footing. In the final phase, the funds for governance will be passed directly to the community, and kernel will become a front office. But this transition from leading from the front to leading from behind is truly experimental.

“Part of it is allowing chaos to reign,” Jacob told me. The point, I would propose, is to not spend a lot of effort (and time) establishing and then defending a set of top-down decisions. He continued,“a lot of things go wrong when you have a benevolent dictatorship that says ‘this is the way’.” When the community feels the need to make a decision, the lack of a top-down process enables people step up to offer solutions.

Behind the scenes, Jacob noted, the leaders of the Drupal project pay very close attention to all of the blogs and the threads on discussions and comments, and keep track of who was working well with others and who was influencing their peers. It would be vital to have these people in the room for important decisions. This internal eco-system is fostered through support for travel to Drupal events, and through email lists and other back-channel communication. Out in the front channels, the Drupal bus riders are shouting out their visions and their peeves.

The other eco-system to which the Drupal project and Organization pays close attention is the larger CMS world, where big corporations and government agencies are looking to make long-term investments. “This way we can counsel corporate users, and use their feedback to counsel Drupal developers,” Jacob noted. One big part of leading from behind is also watching the road ahead.

You can find Jacob Redding at:

Photo Credit: by Guerilla Features | Jason Tester used under CC license on Flickr.

Building Double-Loop Organizations for Member Engagement and Innovation

I’m going to explore the idea of “double-loop” governance, with some ideas and some suggestions as to why you might want to consider this form of governance as the heart of the physical or virtual organization (or network, or corporation) you plan to start or hope to change.

Below, you will discover how a double-loop governance scheme brings the values, the vision, and the underlying assumptions of an organization into an open and transparent decision cycle.  This decision process is characterized by distributed (shared) participation and control, free and informed choices, public testing of evaluations, and an ability to manage conflict on the surface of discussion threads.

Members in an organization with double-loop governance have the ability to redirect, refocus, and recommit to the values and the vision of their organization. Double-loop governance creates peers for a peer-to-peer network. Because of this, membership is well-defined, and provided with responsibilities and rewards.

Double-loop organizations tend towards meritocracies and value contributions over clout (or Klout). Because decision-making—to the level of deciding underlying assumptions—is distributed rather than top-down, double-loop organizations depend on double-loop learning (and Model II theories-in-use). Contributions to decisions and work toward goals (software code contributions, etc.) can be used to measure the value of members, and to reward their service.  The vectors for acquiring merit are ideally well-described and collectively fashioned. A great example of this is StackExchange ( Clay Shirky, in a recent talk (available at, describes how StackExchange uses double-loop governance to engage its members. Double-loop organizations are better able to discover and reward emergent leadership and harvest the long-tail of community participation.

Much of the added value of a double-loop governed organization comes from the quality of interpersonal interactions, the extra amount of available trust, and the additional flexibility that distributed decision making provides. This value does not arrive without additional costs (which are described below). For ventures that are designed to solve a single problem and then end, these costs may not be appropriate. But for enterprises that hope to grow and flourish in today’s changing IT landscape, these costs are essential to sustaining any organization.

While notions of double-loop governance apply to various organizations, here I want to focus on virtual organizations/internet communities. These have some common features. They are created to solve a problem or problems, often problems of some real consequence. They rely on the voluntary contributions of experts. And they bridge between groups that may have diverse or divergent interests. Examples of these organizations/communities of which I am somewhat familiar (either personally or through other sources) include the W3C, Ubuntu Linux, Stack Exchange, the Open Geospatial Consortium, the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners, the National Science Digital Library, and the Digital Library for Earth System Education.

Some of these organizations are/were more successful in their governance efforts than others. Some of these examples no longer exist, in part because of their governance choices. Other authors have pointed to Apple Computer, the Valve Corporation (entertainment software makers), and Zappos (online shoe store) as good examples of culture-led corporations that use double-loop learning to pivot to new opportunities; and these provide some lessons on how double-loop management/governance can become an integral feature of a for-profit organization. The Valve Corporation Handbook for New Employees, First Edition (2012) welcomes new employees with this statement: “The company is yours to steer—toward opportunities and away from risks. You have the power to green light projects. You have the power to ship products” (p. 4). In full double-loop mode, the Handbook is also editable by employees, new and old: “This book is on the intranet, so you can edit it. Once you’ve read it, help us make it better for other new people. Suggest new sections, or change the existing ones” (p. viii).

The various examples show how spending the time and effort to become a double-loop governed organization is important for innovation, for volunteer engagement, and for sustainability (i.e., the why of double-loop governance). What follows are some thoughts on where the value of double-loop governance is found, and how to boot-strap and support double-loop governance for a new virtual organization.

It could be argued that single loop organizations and management were well suited for a time when the pace of innovation was much slower than today. The single goal of becoming more efficient in, and creating sustaining technologies for, the manufacturing of, say, automobiles or washing machines could carry a corporation for several decades. The pace of innovation within information technology now means that organizations need a new ability. They need to pivot to respond to external (disruptive) innovations, and they need to rethink their underlying assumptions to stay creative and innovative internally. These capabilities belong to the second loop of a double-loop organization.


Double-Loop Learning as an outcome of Double-Loop Governance

The concepts of double-loop governance and double-loop learning (Argyris and Shön, 1978) share a common ground in the communicative acts required to support these. Double-loop governance puts into practice what Argyris calls a Model II style of theories-in-use. A Model I “theory-in-use” for Argyris (1982, 8) represents the set of assumptions that a person puts into everyday practice without reflection. A Model I theory-in-use greatly resembles what Pierre Bourdieu calls a individual habitus (1990, 56). What a Model II style adds is a critical reflective moment. A Model II style is characterized by valid information, free and informed choice, and internal commitment (Smith 2001). Model II supports double-loop learning: an ability to question an “organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.” (Argyris and Shön, 1978, 2-3; quoted in Smith 2001). This ability—which all nimble online organizations require to keep up with changing codes and capabilities—needs to be established as a cultural goal of the organization. And for this, it needs to be a visible part of the organization’s governance scheme.

This is what separates a double-loop governance effort from a single-loop governance structure linked to a management plan (or tied to a charismatic founder). “Governance is almost entirely based around values,” notes Jono Bacon (Bacon 2009), community manager for the Ubuntu distribution of Linux. “You need to not only understand your values, but celebrate them,” he concludes. In terms of double-loop governance, I would add that an organization needs to reflexively control (c.f., Giddens 1994: 122-123) its values, interrogate them regularly, and celebrate how robust they are. They are robust because there is an active process to reform and renew them as needed.

Single Loop Management

Organizational management provides at least a single loop of internal communication and learning. Goals, strategies and techniques are attempted and their outcomes evaluated. On the basis of this evaluation, new goals, strategies, and techniques are attempted. The desired outcome of the single loop is an improvement in efficiency. This is essential Twentieth Century business management guidance. How business was done.

This is also, in part, why so many Twentieth Century corporations are no longer here. Disruptive innovation and other rapid market changes cannot be addressed through efficiency alone. John Kao (2002) describes it this way, “We all want benchmarks to get the job done more efficiently. But this does not lead to disruptive, game-changing innovation, the stuff of which organizational renewal and competitiveness under conditions of uncertainty are all about.” (Kindle Locations 2686-2689).

Government agencies are also good examples of single-loop governed, problem-focused, service-delivery organizations. They work under externally mandated goals and priorities. Even their single-loop quest for greater efficiency is sometimes constrained by legislative demands and regulatory road-blocks. These constraints provide a motivation for for agencies to partner with double-loop virtual organizations where disruptive innovation capabilities can be built into the working culture and governance framework.

Clayton Christensen (2002) describes how the capability for innovation, and particularly for disruptive innovation, “…lies in the resources-processes-values (RPV) framework…” of an organization. (Kindle Locations 1962-1966). What Christensen found was that single-loop organizations (organizations that cannot reflectively question their underlying assumptions, values, and vision) create incremental, sustaining innovation that increasingly values high-margin results and high-budget customers. These organizations do not have the capability to pivot to take advantage of a disruptive innovation.

Double-loop organizations will have processes that resemble those of the single-loop organization (trial and error, experiment and review, etc.). Efficiency and linear, sustaining innovation for progress to a desired goal: these are not abandoned. But they are embedded in the larger discussion of their relative return on an investment in their outcomes based on a larger vision that includes disruptive innovation opportunities. All of the thousands of PPTs with arrows connecting the end of a process to its evaluation and then back to the start of the process can still be used: with some necessary modification. These must include another loop out to “review assumptions and rethink and reapply values”.


Double-Loop Organization Membership

The ESIP Federation Assembly meets every year to decide on a range of issues.

Double-Loop Organization Membership

Double-loop governed organizations place significant value on the rules and roles of membership. Whether the organization is a “purpose-led” corporation, such as Zappos, an open-source software community, such as Ubuntu, or a collection of research projects, such as the ESIP Federation: membership (or employee-ship) is important because members are tasked to create and celebrate the values and the vision of the organization and to work to fulfill its mission and goals. Members are inspired (rather than required) to commit to this vision. Membership is openly acquired and acknowledged, and its responsibilities are plainly spelled out. Somewhere in the shared rules and roles, an ability to rewrite the shared rules and roles is provided to all members.

This ability creates and supports a mode of reflexive learning. At the same time that members are working to solve certain problems—the solution for which is the mission of the organization—they are also evaluating this same mission. They are responsible not just for incremental success, but also for opportunities to pivot the entire organization into a different mission, one that resolves not just the problem at hand, but some underlying condition as well.

At Zappos, an internet shoe store (now a part of Amazon), employees in their first days of orientation are given the option of taking a $2,000 check to simply quit and walk away. “We want employees that believe in our long-term vision and want to be a part of our culture.”(Hsieh 2010; Kindle Location 2549). At winter ESIP Federation meetings all of the members present gather at Assembly meetings where fundamental issues (including the organization’s budget) and executive positions of the organization are brought up for discussion and a vote.


Single-loop organizations may also support membership, but membership for these is often perfunctory (e.g., a log-in account on the organization website), and may be loosely defined or changed without members having a say. The organization may simply use its membership as a list to broadcast (or request) information.

Here we might remember that the U.S. Government is (at least in spirit) a double-loop governed organization. Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution gives the Senate and/or the States a method to create a constitutional convention to rewrite the constitution. (After two hundred years since the first one, a constitutional convention would certainly produce some interesting new text.) A related power is given to amend the Constitution, a process that has been performed several times.

Similarly, Article 9 of the Constitution of the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners gives the membership the right to rewrite or amend its constitution. Because members can re-vision the organization, membership rules and roles are taken very seriously by the organization, and consequently, by its members. The governance charter of the Ubuntu organization provide precise rules and roles for managing that software development (See: ). Charters, statements of values, and constitutions are all indicators of double-loop governance, although the amount of double-loop capabilities rests in how much reflexive authority they give to the membership.

The vision statement, as Sinek reminds (2009) us, is the public statement about why an organization exists. Mission statements/business plans are Loop 1 outcomes. The mission statement tell us how the organization “intends to create [the] future” (Kindle Locations 2035-2045).  The “how” is firmly in Loop 1. This is further articulated in business and strategic plans, and then in policies that direct activities. The “why” lives in Loop 2, and is embodied in the values expressed through the vision statement. The why—the vision, expressed as values—is often described as the “culture” of the organization.

Tony Hsieh is famous for saying “your culture is your brand.” (2010, Kindle Locations 2529-2540). Your vision statement, including your core  values, is the center of your organization: “We believe that it’s really important to come up with core values that you can commit to. And by commit, we mean that you’re willing to hire and fire based on them.” (Ibid, Kindle Locations 2545-2566).  In a community-based organization, just as in a purpose-led company, double-loop governance—as difficult as this may be to bootstrap—forges a congruence between the words on the vision statement (whatever these are), and the quality of learning and knowledge management in the organization. When “your governance is your culture,” the members can more fully commit to the organization. This makes many subsequent (and consequent) tasks that much easier.

Done well, culture is not just an asset, it is an engine for double-loop learning within the organization, and that, in turn, is the foundation for knowledge management. Lehr and Rice (2002) make the following observation; “Double-loop learning is where knowledge is generated from information: more specifically, where the process of implementing information is evaluated, validated, verified, and adapted (p. 1062). Done poorly, “culture” becomes either decorative or punitive (something that employees are required to memorize, rather than something that could engage an active volunteer-base). Vision statements can and should be early Loop 2 outcomes. Single-loop organizations also have vision statements. What they lack is the built-in capability to question the underlying assumptions of these.

For a member/community-led organization the vision is what brings together all of the disparate intentions and backgrounds into one common, shared future. This vision should be visionary, it should announce with conviction the higher purpose that the organization will embrace (higher than profits or technological success). It needs to inspire the membership, and incite the impulse to leadership.


Building a Double Loop for Liquid Innovation

Building a Double Loop for Liquid Innovation

By relying on transparent decision processes, open information flows, and shared—and celebrated—values, double-loop governance can power a virtual organization to hold together large collections of otherwise independent, and even conflicting, groups (for- and not-for profit organizations, widely scattered science disciplines, suppliers and end users, etc.). They can also house large numbers of self-organizing subgroups, each one of these working teams (the ESIP Federation calls them “clusters”) is committed to specific action points.  This creates what Hagel and Brown (2011) call a “creation net” for open innovation within a virtual organization.

This creation network is enabled by a certain quality of learning within interactions, a greater quantity of information flows (and/or a greater attention to these), an availability of interpersonal trust (based on demonstrated skills and commitment), and an environment of reflexive involvement: all benefits of belonging to  a community-led double-loop governance. When members are given license to form working teams based on their own informed insights into where the adjacent possible is found, creative interactions and new knowledge become predictable outcomes.

The “adjacent possible” is a notion that comes from biological theories of coherent change. It describes how an environment between static and chaos provides a repertoire of available changes. Adjacency is a helpful way to describe how a virtual organization can use a combination of well-designed face-to-face meetings and Internet-based communication/collaboration technologies to create the spaces where, as Matt Ridley ( calls it, “ideas go to have sex.”  If you can point to your organization and truthfully say: “this is where ideas go to have sex,” (or something like that), then you’ve built a place where the idea makers among your members will be happiest and most creative.

Steven Johnson, <>, uses the metaphor of “liquid” to describe the optimal network environment to enable innovation (Johnson, 2011). “Solid” networks are too stiff to pivot toward “the adjacent possible” where new ideas sprout. “Gas” networks are too chaotic. “In a solid, the opposite happens: the patterns have stability, but they are incapable of change. But a liquid network creates a more promising environment for the system to explore the adjacent possible. “ (Kindle Locations 611-614).

More specifically, liquid networks—and the virtual organizations that create these—enable individual members to explore the adjacent possible; “When the first market towns emerged in Italy, they didn’t magically create some higher-level group consciousness. They simply widened the pool of minds that could come up with and share good ideas. This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.” (Ibid, Kindle Locations 677-680). The liquid network is another way of talking about network diversity, the optimal mix of strong ties, weak ties, and strangers in direct communication (See: Ruef, 2002) that is a strong predictor for innovation.


Volunteer Engagement in your Double-Loop Organization

Lamp lighters at Burning Man. Burning Man requires 2000 volunteers (Chen 2009)—almost all of whom also buy tickets and pay their own expenses—to run Black Rock City.Photo by Trey Ratcliff. CC licensed.

Volunteer Engagement in your Double-Loop Organization

How does double-loop governance help engage volunteers? What is different about the “culture” of a double-loop organization, how does this difference matter to volunteers?


Community-led virtual organizations work every day to engage volunteers and develop leadership from the member community.  There is no governance solution that can put this process on autopilot. The loss of commitment by volunteers was reported in more than seventy-seven percent of narratives about the failure of non-profit organizations (Duckles, Hager, and Galaskiewicz, 2005, p. 190). To use a nautical metaphor, we can say that member investment in the values and the vision of the organization is like a tail wind, and double-loop governance is a spinnaker that catches this. Extending this metaphor, the staff still needs to keep rowing, and someone needs to hold the rudder. But a lot of valuable velocity is acquired by capturing member investment.

Malone, Laubacher, and Dellarocas (2009) describe three elemental motivations for participation in an organization: money, love, and glory. In virtual organizations that rely on volunteer experts, the “money” motivation is specifically unavailable. In fact these experts often have full-time work elsewhere. Love and glory are the two remaining sources of the motivation for investment by members.

Above, we noted that double-loop organizations base their governance on values that are owned, shared, and celebrated by its members. While members may not totally love these values, the fact that they own them and cherish them, celebrate them regularly, and modify them with care is as close to love as any organization can accomplish.  By supporting meritocracy, the double-loop organization opens an arena for glory. How effectively this arena is articulated will impact the success of the organization. Leadership needs to be cultivated, captured, and recognized. Much of the work of a large double-loop organization may be done in self-organizing subgroups, and so some transparent process to recognize this work needs to become an integral aspect of how the larger organization, and the entire membership community, measures value.

Single-loop organizations also attempt to capitalize on love and glory. Reputation systems and “communities of practice” can be added to any organization. Social media savvy online stores such as Amazon and eBay have built strong reputation systems for sellers and reviewers. Premier reviewers can see their reviews show up at the top of lists. Airline and hotel companies build “loyalty” (a substitute for “love”) by offering rewards for repeat purchases. But for volunteer-based organizations, these interactions fail to produce the level of member investment that a double-loop organization can provide.  That investment is time and talent they give to your collective goals. It is a resource that most budgets cannot buy. Double-loop governance gives your member community good reasons to trust the efforts of your staff, to contribute to governance tasks, and to care for your vision and your values.