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)

Yes, your agency/foundation can sponsor world-class virtual organizations to transform the sciences

For VRVOs conviviality is essential
For VRVOs, conviviality is essential

I’ve just returned from the Summer meeting of the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP). After nearly two decades of “making data matter”, ESIP continues to show real value to its sponsors. Indeed, the next few years might be a period where ESIP grows well beyond its original scope (remotely sensed Earth data) to tackle data and software issues throughout the geosciences. A good deal of the buzz at this year’s Summer meeting was a new appreciation for the “ESIP way” of getting things done.
ESIP champions open science at all levels, and this openness extends to everything ESIP does internally. ESIP is building a strong culture for the pursuit of open science in the geosciences, and remains a model for other volunteer-run virtual organizations (VRVO) across science domains. There are lessons learned here that can be applied to any arena of science.
I hope other agency sponsors will take note of ESIP when they propose to fund a “community-led, volunteer-run virtual organization.” In this letter I’m going to point out some central dynamics that can maximize the ROI for sponsors and enable these organizations to do their work of transforming science. One note: I am using the term “sponsor” here to designate agencies or foundations that fund the backbone organization, the staff of the VRVO. The work of volunteers is of course, not directly funded (apart from some logistic support).

The biggest picture
The real potential for any science VRVO to return value to its sponsors is realized as this organization develops into an active, vibrant community-led, volunteer-run virtual science/technology organization. To capture this value, the VRVO needs to focus on those activities that leverage the advantages peculiar to this type of organization, with special attention to activities that could not be realized through direct funding as, say, a funded research center. This is a crucial point. The real advantages that the VRVO offers to science and to its sponsors are based on the fact that it is not a funded project or center, and that the difference between it and funded centers (or facilities, or projects) is intentional and generative to its ROI.
The simple truth is that any volunteer-run organization will never be able to perform exactly like a funded center, just as centers cannot perform like VRVOs. Community-led organizations make, at best, mediocre research centers. Volunteers cannot be pushed to return the same type of deliverables as those expected by a center.
The biggest return that any VRVO will provide to its sponsors will come from circumstances where incentives other than funding are in play. In fact, adding money is generally a counter-incentive in these circumstances. Among these returns are the following:

  • A durable, expandable level of collective intelligence that can be queried and mined;
  • An amplified positive level of adoption to standards and shared practices;
  • An ability to use the network to create new teams capable of tackling important issues (=better proposals); and,
  • The ability to manage a diverse set of goals and strategies within the group, each of them important to a single stakeholder community, but all of them tuned to a central vision and mission.

Elsewhere I have outlined a larger number of such returns on investment. I continue to receive comments listing additional ones. I’ll do an updated list before the end of the year.

None of these returns can be funded directly by the sponsors, apart from supporting the backbone organization that in turn supports the VRVO. And none of these could effectively be funded through a center or other entity. They are predictable outcomes only of precisely the type of organization that the VRVO will, hopefully, achieve.

The real test for a science VRVO is to develop fully within the scope and logic of its organizational type. The concomitant test for the sponsors is to understand that sponsoring a new and different type of organization will require some new expectations and some period (a few years) of growth and experimentation to allow the virtual organization to find its own strength and limits.

Experiments, such as micro-funding are easier in a VRVO
Experiments, such as micro-funding, are easier in a VRVO

Governance NOT Management
One important lesson learned at ESIP is this: governance must never be reduced to management. Funded projects and centers are managed. VRVOs are  self-governed. Volunteer-run organizations are intrinsically unmanageable as a whole, and at their best. A VRVO can certainly house dozens or hundreds of small, self-directed teams where real work can be managed. ESIP “clusters” are good example. These teams can produce valuable and timely deliverables for science and for the sponsors.
The style of governance is also very important here. Attempts to shift governance away from the membership and into top-down executive- or oversight committees are always counterproductive. They give the membership a clear alibi to not care about the organization. Academics have enough alibis to not volunteer without adding this one. The members need to own the mission, vision, and strategies for the VO. Successful activities will emerge from initiatives that have been started independently and with some immediate urgency by small groups and which grow into major efforts with broadly valued deliverables. Bottom-up governance will outperform top-down management over the long term.

Science culture shifting
Probably the largest recognized impact that science VRVOs can make here—and perhaps only these can accomplish this—is to model a new, intentional cultural mode of producing science. This new cultural model will likely be centered on sharing (sharing is also one of the oldest cultural traits of science, only recently neglected). Sharing ideas. Sharing software, tools, techniques, data, metadata, workflows, algorithms, methodologies, null data, and then sharing results. Reuse needs to become a key metric of science knowledge (Cameron Neylon noted this at the original Beyond the PDF conference).
Transforming science means changing the culture of science. Science VRVOs must perform real culture work here. This is often a challenge for their sponsors, as these organizations are usually well situated at the center of the existing science culture. The key learning moments and opportunities, and perhaps the highest ROI for sponsoring a science VRVO is when this organization teaches its sponsor to change.

Three critical governance conditions any agency/foundation sponsor needs to heed.

There are three necessary conditions for an agency-sponsored, community-led organization to be accepted as legitimate by a science community.

  1. The sponsoring agency needs to allow the community to build its own governance. Governance documents and practices are not subject to approval or even review by the sponsoring agency, apart from needing to follow standard fiduciary rules. The sponsoring agency can offer input the same way other individuals and groups do, but the community decides its own practices. The metrics for the governance are the growth of volunteer participation, and spread of community involvement, the perceived transparency and fairness of decisions, and the community’s value placed on the work being done.
  2. The sponsoring agency has no right to review or in any way interfere with elections. All organization members have the right to run for office and to be elected.
  3. The agency’s sponsorship is designed to help the organization grow into its potential as a volunteer-run, community-led scientific organization. The returns on investment for the agency are multiple, but do not include tasking the organization to perform specific duties, other than to improve over time.

Postscript: of course, the golden rule of any volunteer organization, new or old, is this: DFUTC.

What is an online community architect?


I was recently asked why I call myself an online community “architect.” A fair question. My use of the label “architect” is meant to highlight how intentional communities, such as virtual organizations, can design, assemble, and use cultural practices to become more effective at achieving their goals and their vision.

The “unintentional” communities that we find ourselves belonging to (or resisting) in our society, from our neighborhoods and schools to our language groups and nations, use cultural practices that are grounded in longer histories and broader social structures. These represent the culture we are submerged in from birth; often they are the practices that represent our sense of identity and position in society.

These practices (and associated beliefs) are what anthropologists call “culture.” They remind us that much of this is learned and then used unconsciously, as habits and behaviors that come naturally to the enculturated members of the society. Intentional communities are made up of members that carry their own cultural habits from their society. On top of these habits, an intentional community agrees to add practices that are mutually agreed upon and available for discussion and revision. 

Some intentional communities are created as counter-cultural groups, where their practices are designed specifically to conflict with those of the larger society. But many more intentional communities, from workplaces to voluntary societies and virtual organizations simply want to define their core values and to design governance practices to support these.

Often, corporations and networked communities fail to recognize that they need to develop an intentional culture to support their collaborations. They rely on the unconscious cultural habits of their members and on imposed management schemes to compel participation. Management practices can seem more effective and cheaper than the expense of building cultural practices and governance. However, in situations where corporations need to pivot quickly, or where virtual organizations need to rely on volunteers, there is no substitute for shared values supported by governance practices.

The literature on the costs and benefits of a robust corporate culture is quite large. But how can organizations gain expertise in developing intentional cultural practices? Just as a building architect is used to create an efficient and effective envelope of space, a community architect can help an organization create an envelope of practice. Every effective corporate culture is based on shared intention and honest design. It is the role of the community architect to become familiar with those design patterns that can help a new virtual organization build a robust cultural fabric to support its vision and its goals.

Photo Credit: “On The Saturday Before That” by Thomas Hawk on flickr

On the road to governance? Get a handle on your logic and keep an eye on practice.

Barn Raising

Building practices for an emerging governance gives your virtual organization community tools to explore how they want to govern their own participation. Too often, governance planners start by thinking of structures: committees, boards, and assemblies. The structures will emerge more organically if planners start with practices and their logic.

Twenty some years ago, anthropologist/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote Le Sens Pratique (Logic of Practice). He noted that cultural activities were not simply reasoned, but also became embedded in their practice. Their performance included tacit knowledge that was not available to the performer, having been learned directly through the body. The cultural norms and skills are carried by their members without the need for reflection or conversation. This is precisely why “culture” is often considered as difficult to change.

How does this theory inform the work of building an intentional community governance? Mainly, I will propose that governance needs to “make sense,” not just as a reason-able activity, but as a practice that feels right. Because this community is intentional, its practices are available for reflection and conversation, and change. This is the real difference between culture out in the world and the culture of a company or a virtual organization. Any organization that loses the ability to direct its internal culture is trapped in a single loop of progress and error and will never learn its way out of this. Your culture belongs to you, and not you to it.

How can practices feel right? How do you know if a practice feels wrong? The main way is to create a small list of provisional core values. These become the touchstones that members use to judge how right or wrong a proposed practice feels. If “maximal transparency” is a core value, then a practice that hides disagreement is going to feel wrong. If “diversity of approach” is a core value, a practice that opens up to a great variety of inputs will feel right.

Don’t feel like these provisional core values will need to be written in stone. Make one of them “community owns its values” and encourage the members to embrace and celebrate them, changing them when they want to. 

Remember that governance is not simply about decision making. There are a lot of expressive opportunities that it can enable that will help your members to embody the organization’s culture through their interactions. Governance needs to encourage leadership and resolve conflicts. It should promote best practices and reward service.

Are you ready to gather your fledgling community together and start planning a governance approach? Get them to outline a handful of key values first. Then challenge them to find practices that uplift and promote these. Then you can add in use cases and scenarios for them to build structures that use these practices. Before you know it, your community will have a first draft of their bare-bones governance scheme.

Photo Credit: Elgin County Archives, Wallacetown Women’s Institute fonds on Flickr

Achieving a consensus culture for your virtual organization


Decision making for your virtual organization needs to optimize the decision process and impact. If your organization relies on a wider community of unpaid volunteers, then you will need to find ways to involve this community in your decision process. Where decisions need to be made on a day-to-day basis, you will want to have paid staff with the authority to make these, and to also be accountable to the executive body of your virtual organization. Involving the wider community usually involves two complementary modes of decision making: election and consensus.  For large organizations these two modes are sometimes used together in a multi-step process of delegation and consensus.

Why is consensus important? What type of consensus is the best? How do I create a culture of consensus? Previously, I outlined the arenas where staff and volunteer decision making occur, here I want to focus on the role of consensus. Consensus is primary important as a decision process where this can positively impact the quality of the decision and/or the efficacy of its outcome. The road a consensus decision opens up the discussion to include every member’s perspective and intuition. This process brings in the full range of the group’s knowledge to bear on the issue. During this discussion, aspects of the problem may be illuminated that were previously obscure. The result can be a decision that is stronger or more astute. Even when the discussion leads to a compromise, that compromise can be based on real-world limitations, and so, might avoid trouble after implementation. Where the implementation of the decision will require the active participation of the larger community (e.g., a decision to support a certain data/metadata format) consensus carries an invaluable mark of community involvement and ownership for the decision.

Just enough of a consensus

Absolute consensus may be unreasonable, given the range and interests of various stakeholder groups in the membership. If this is the case, and it would probably become evident during the start-up of the community, then some sort of “working consensus” (or rough consensus) might be a reasonable alternative. This would be a type of super-majority that would allow for a few opposing views to be not included in the final decision, but to be included in a durable report of the decision process as a minority perspective. The logic is to be able to move ahead, while maintaining the conflict that emerged in the decision process on the surface of the final decision. This type of working consensus would need to have at least a 81% majority: in a group of 20, no more than three people can disagree with the final decision. The goal is always to achieve a total consensus, with the working consensus as a fall-back.

Consensus culture

Consensus decision making requires a consensus-aware culture for interaction within the group. There are some established cultural practice guidelines for consensus organizations. One of my favorites is the Seeds for Change organization in the UK.  The consensus decision process challenges each member to listen fully to the arguments, to state their own position clearly, and to be aware that they have more than just an option to support or block a decision. A member can also abstain, withholding their outright support and refusing to block a decision. It is important in the discussions leading to a decision that the facilitator (often a staff member) is also a process mentor, reminding members of the need for open minds and hearts in the process, and a clear-headed, well-founded motive when a member decides to block a decision.

Consensus decision making does not directly scale beyond a couple-dozen members. In a larger community, each stakeholder subgroup (this requires a fractal subsetting to sub-groups of no more than a couple-dozen members) is granted a representative to an executive council where the consensus discussion is held. At the point of a vote, the representative returns to their subgroup and outlines the issues and the proposed decision. Once a consensus is acquired within the subgroup, this is carried back to the executive group.

The process of arriving at a consensus is at the same time a process of listening to the best ideas and the strongest fears of the community’s stakeholders, and a means to forge a better solution as a final decision. A decision based on consensus carries the trust and the will of the entire community.

Photo Credit: CC licensed on Flickr by Tantek Çelik

Double-loop Organizations build policies from the bottom up: here are 3 ways to make policies that work

bottom up

Your virtual organization will work harder and better when everyone has a say about policies, and not just about procedures. Policy setting happens best in the second loop of a double-loop governed organization. That way the policy can respond directly to the vision of the organization.

A friend, a sysadmin at a major research university, was on his way to DEF CON when I ran into him on the street. He enjoyed hearing about the new security hacks he would be facing, and, as usual, he was not happy about the security measures on his campus. After describing how schools, departments, and centers had managed to grab the right to host their own Internet content—with predictably inconsistent results—he concluded that even his own department could use some new policies.

“Unfortunately, I can’t make policy,” he said, “I can only recommend procedures.” Faculty make policy, he explained. Staff implement this as well as they can. “I can talk all day, but some new PhD who thinks he knows enough will want to run his own server and connect into the department’s databases on my servers.” My friend has far more knowledge about computer security than he can implement, and he sees trouble ahead against which he cannot defend by making and enforcing better policies. When the system fails, when data are stolen or lost, he will be asked to explain and tasked to repair the damage. When the fan and the feces collide, he only hopes the precious work of graduate students is not collateral damage.

I could just recommend that you do not follow the model of a large academic department in a research university when you create your virtual organization. However, I doubt any of you (particularly those of you who have worked in a large academic department) had plans to do so. My point here is that every member of your organization can contribute to its policies and help defend it from failure.

Here are three ways you can make policies more effective for your organization:

1) When you create an executive panel or committee to make policy, be sure that this body is well connected with the larger membership.

2) Use a federated election process to preserve the voices of minority factions and edge groups, and empower contributions from across the membership.

3) Get additional feedback from the membership before you implement a new policy.

As a bonus, you will find that policies that are enacted with these practices are likely to be followed with greater rigor and care than those that simply appear in an email from the top.

Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by Bobcatnorth

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.

Who says that “agile” is just for software? Architect an agile online community!

If you’ve familiar with object-oriented coding using any agile methods, you understand that the customer is at the center of the software development effort. The customers problems, her needs and goals, laid out in stories that the programmers return to every day: these keep the software from feature creep and UX failure. Delivering working software in small increments helps the customer reveal the moment they don’t need or understand something. The programmers can toss out that new feature and go back to the customer stories again with fresh insight.

They are testing all the code every day and releasing every week. So there’s never a time when the changing the software costs more than the last time. They are free to pivot toward some new capability that just might provoke delight in their customers; something they would never have tried if the cost of change was growing. Finally, they are solving their customers’ problems and building into the software new opportunities that might not have existed anywhere else in this way ever before. OK, so it rarely works out that well. But the philosophy of agile code development is sound and it offers valuable lessons beyond writing code.

Virtual organization community leaders would do well to consider how the Manifesto for Agile Software Development might be tweaked to be a working Manifesto for Agile Community Development:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software (working volunteers) over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration (member collaboration) over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan.


Let’s look at these one by one. Individuals and interactions are the daily work of the community leader. Staying in touch with members is more important than whatever tool (email, forum, listserve) is picked to accomplish this. Working volunteers build value and direction for the virtual organization. Having a grand, detailed volunteer guide is less important than having a team of members who want to move the organization ahead. Member collaboration means giving the membership as much ownership as possible. Staff are around to take care of day-to-day business, but budgets, planning, and the real work of the VO belong to the members. The staff are the sails, the members are the wind. Responding to change means having a full double-loop governance system and pivoting this to stay ahead of changes surrounding the organization. If you’re only following a plan, you are already lost.

Agile: it’s not just for software anymore!

photo credit: From flickr user magia3e

Imagine your virtual organization (VO) as a street festival

Photo from Flickr. CC by Jesslee Cuizon

I once spent several years studying how communities assembled festival productions in the streets of their towns and cities. This includes almost three years in Kyoto, Japan, and other experiences from South India and the US. The impetus behind this (no, it wasn’t the beer, but that helped) was to see a form of cultural production that was forced to renew itself regularly, and to describe and explain how that cadence of activity could sustain an enormous volunteer effort every year. I was also interested in festivals as they often included activities and behaviors that were not available or advisable on the streets during the rest of the year (aspects of comedy, nudity, violence, politics, joy, and sex: stir together and stand back). The time and space of the festival did not just occur on the street, it transformed the street. Much the same could be said for the impact of the event on the lives of the participants.

I also saw a lot of festivals that failed to transform the street, that had been, somehow, reduced to parades and pageants, to a semblance of their former glory. In these events participation was simply another chore. As such, participants required payment. Volunteerism declined. The vestigial energy of the festival was provided by the music and the movement. But the ability to transform the lives of the participants was lost.

The craft and the logic of a festival event are in many ways similar to that of any virtual organization that hopes to engage its members. The face-to-face meetings or your organization may not achieve actual festivity, but the power of your organization to transform the capabilities and empower the hopes of its members should never be forgotten.

Several years ago I wrote a piece for the Kyoto Journal, “Imagine the festival as a building,” in which I asked readers to imagine their community-based organization (festival or virtual) as a building, a house that is rebuilt from scratch every year. The main messages of this article outlined how the process of designing and constructing the house each year supported the neighborhood in vital ways, and explored how this event would certainly be destroyed when its festival logic is violated, even if an event kept happening.

The essence of a festival logic is honest and free voluntary participation and expression.      A radical form of intimacy emerges. Some scholars tie this back to ancient forms of human physicality (e.g., Cox 1969; Stallybrass and White 1986); however, Anthony Giddens (1992) anchors this form of intimacy also as a hallmark of current modernity. We all want to achieve more moments of intimacy.

Festival logic informs the whole process of design and performance. When you incorporate a similar festival logic into your community-led virtual organization you unleash new levels of member engagement. Street festivals generally focus this energy into artistic forms, while your organization might focus this on product development, creativity, and innovation. If you can imagine your VO as a street festival, you might discover its festival logic. If you cannot, then you might want to ask yourself how to add this logic to your organization.


Caron, Bruce. (2011) Imagine the festival as a building… [Internet]. Version 1. lightblueblog. 2011 Dec 25. Available from: .  From Caron 2003

Cox, Harvey (1969) The Feast of Fools. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Giddens, Anthony (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White (1986) The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. London: Methuen & Co.

On becoming an organization

Carl Rogers, congruence and double-loop governance

In 1961, the psychotherapist Carl Rogers compiled three decades of papers into the book On Becoming a Person. While the main frame of the book describes his client-centric approach to psychotherapy, how he arrived at this and what he learned as a practitioner, many of the articles—which read very much as blogs do today (and were unpublishable in the scientific journals for this reason)—link this frame to other human endeavors. In particular, he looks to education and personal relations in organizations.

His main therapeutic process involves the psychoanalyst as a person, developing her own personhood by becoming more congruent (more about this in a minute) and then using this congruence as a communication tool to open up the client to the process of becoming more congruent. The therapist is really only someone further along the same road to becoming a person.

The process of becoming a person, of achieving more and wider congruence, and so having fewer and fewer defenses, brings the client to a better life, with less tension and fear, better communication with everyone, and new opportunities to explore each moment fully.

Congruence happens when one’s real self (the one we all start out with—all infants are congruent) fully resembles one’s ideal self (the one we acquire from interactions with others). The lack of congruence leads to the need to defend the ideal self every time the real self behaves differently, or when people respond to the real self instead of the ideal self. The real self becomes hidden and, indeed, often unknowable; which forms the reason for therapeutic intervention. The therapist’s more advanced facility with congruence allows her to be less threatening and so to tease the client’s real self out from the shadows, to where the client can repossess this and model their ideal self on their real self. Once they do so, they no longer need to be defensive and they also can speak more honestly from their own minute-by-minute experiences. They communicate better and, in their interactions with others, create the same therapeutic situation they had experienced.

For Rogers, building congruence creates a positive feedback that will foster better communication in an organizational setting; communication where honest reactions and unedited information can lead to more reliable outcomes. These outcomes build more trust into the subsequent situations, which also help all involved become more congruent as persons. The opposite is true for incongruent communication, which leads to fixed limits on what can be said, a growth of miscommunication, an increase in emotional stress, and overall dissatisfaction with the interaction environment. Rogers’ “Tentative Formulation of a General Law of Interpersonal Relationships” (Rogers 338-346) reads very much like a Web 2.0 manual for creating a high-trust, flat-management start-up company in 2012. He was 50 years ahead of his time.

Rogers’ general law maps directly onto double-loop governance, with the real organization being the first loop, and the ideal organization being the second loop. Instead of hiding the ideal organization behind the intentions of the founder, or top-down rules and regulations, double-loop governance makes the ideal organization available to every member. Each member has the same view and purview of the rules and roles, the values and the vision of the organization, and also an obligation to make these congruent with the everyday activities of the organization.

The notion that your organization can also be a therapeutic setting where members can learn to become more congruent may seem peculiar. Remember that the interactions are really a series of conversations between two people. Your organization is only setting the circumstances where members can communicate effectively. We all remember meeting people whom we knew were open and honest, trustworthy people. We tend to forget that when and how we met them framed their ability to reveal themselves and so help us learn. You can make your organization a place where each member can become more a person. In return they will make your organization a better place in which to get things done.


Rogers, Carl R. (1961) On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.