Social Product Development

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Community for All

Tony started work by firing up his workstation, checking email, reviewing his project assignments for the day, and logging his company’s external customer forum to see if there was any interesting chatter. And he did all this (gulp) before his first cup of coffee. In the process, whether or not he was conscious of it, he interfaced with many different types of communities.

As a design engineer for a motorcycle manufacturer, perhaps Tony most closely views himself as a member of one community type: the project workgroup. Think of this community as the team which has a clear set of goals as mandated by the corporation. Examples projects may include: launching a new product line, making a major upgrade to an existing product line, or conducting a feasibility study on a manufacturing-initiated change request. Whatever the case may be, this type of community has a defined responsibilities, with clear roles and methods of oversight. The participants may span more than one company, and consist of engineers, product managers, and operations personnel from Tony’s company, as well as outside design partners, suppliers, and manufacturers. This team endures for a finite period - until the job is done, and then disbands with its members moving on to other projects. The value of the team is evident as it’s the corporation’s vehicle for meeting product development related business objectives.

Now, contrast that with another flavor of community. Let’s call this type CoP, for “Communities of Practice.” Effectively, CoPs are groups of likeminded individuals with common skills, challenges, and goals. Tony may be part of a “Transmission Engineering” CoP because of his design specialty. He may be one of only a few from his current “workgroup community” who participates in this particular CoP, even though there may be dozens of other transmission engineering CoP members spread throughout his company. A CoP is a place to gather and share expertise and ideas on common tasks while not being tied to any specific point-in-time project or task. Membership is voluntary, and its value is the rich pool of accessible knowledge.

Lastly, consider “open communities” spanning the entirety of the Internet, a virtual village green. These communities are collections of individuals who informally associate virtually, without necessarily having a common organizing entity of company, geography, or specialty. On the contrary, these communities form due to an external interest: perhaps an affinity for the types of motorcycles produced by Tony’s company. Members opt-in, have no specific responsibility, but contribute value in their opinions, passion, and evangelism for the products. This community’s contributions are of supreme value to Tony’s company in terms of guiding product direction and being a credible, independent source of information.

Each type of community has something different to offer, and contributes to product development in different ways. This implies that each might be best served by a differing set of technologies. What do you think? Are these types of community real and present in your environment? Did we miss any?


  1. Tom, I think this is an interesting approach. However, I can find myself browsing communities all the time. How I can do it with less time - this is the most important question! What would be a possible approach? Thanks, Oleg

  2. Good question Oleg, we could easily let ourselves spend an inordinate amount of time browsing for information. The point here is more to open a dialog about the different types of communities and to see if each one has its own unique technology needs, specifically as they relate to the members of a manufacturing organization. It could be, for example, that a person ends up spending more time interrogating communities of practice rather than less time (perhaps the company didn't use them before). But if this extra time yields a better product, or faster timeline, or a higher-skilled individual due to expertise gained through the community, is this necessarily a bad thing?