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“Online communities evolve around people. Therefore it is the people and the interactions amongst them that make some communities more innovative and change supporting than others.”

Hanneke Stellink, PA DIGITAL BUSINESS expert

Designing smarter online communities to create innovation and support change

In our connected and digitised world, communication, change and innovation managers are increasingly using online communities to mobilise employees and encourage change or to create platforms for innovation and creative ideas. 

However, while many of these online communities create genuine innovation and alter the way we see and understand the world, others do not. So how do you design a successful generative online community to help you achieve your objectives? 

Generativity, is a trait of communities that create innovation and support change – through being able to produce new concepts and alter existing ones, reframe the way we understand the world and challenge the Status Quo. For example C’mm’n, an open source community for sustainable personal mobility, is a generative community. Our research with 20 experts in the field of innovative communities shows that generative communities share three key characteristics: they enable interaction, reflection and representation; they have low hierarchy and structure; and they are based on technology that frees rather than restricts participants.

Encourage lack of structure and hierarchy

Rigid hierarchical coordination can restrict creative thinking. To create a successful generative community, remove strict rules and procedures as far as possible. Allow everybody to contribute and express ideas freely, irrespective of their position within the organisation. 

Wikipedia, with its encyclopaedia of information on almost every conceivable topic, is a good example. One of the reasons for its success is that all visitors are allowed to modify content to reflect their knowledge. This has resulted in a broad, community-generated database of up-to-date information.

Choose a technology platform that supports freedom

When the design of a platform hinders users, they become less open and creative. So technology platforms should enable users to do what they want to do rather than what the site designers think they should. 

Lego has built a successful community where innovation and co-creation flourishes. One of the characteristics of the site is that it allows users to create and control their own webpage where they can design LEGO™ creations. Users can decide what their page will look like and which applications they want to use, offering them an exciting way to showcase their creativity.

Enable interaction, reflection and representation

The processes of interaction, reflection and representation are critical for creativity, innovation and change. Successful online communities enable their members to interact and engage in conversation so that they can influence each other and question and discuss assumptions. This dialogue is essential for generating and sharing ideas. To be effective then, your community must have functionality that supports the capture and exchange of ideas.

At PA, we have seen for ourselves how effective a well-designed online community can be. For example, one of our clients was implementing a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The project team had been working hard for over two years but its motivation to drive through change was fading. To complement other change activities, we advised the team to launch an online community to share successes and ideas, and to encourage people to interact and reflect on them. The online community contributed to quick and efficient problem solving, a lasting increase in morale and a positive attitude towards the change project.

To find out how PA can help you design a generative online community that creates innovation and supports change, contact us now.


Anita Chandraker
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Kevin O’Shaughnessy
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