FEATURE1 November 2007

Mind games

Groups have a mental life of their own – but how do you keep the ‘group mind’ focused on the task at hand. Jamie Hamilton investigates

Getting a research-oriented online community to perform effectively together as a group is a task that is usually underestimated by the creators, and frequently overlooked altogether. Lurking behind this attitude is an assumption that when a group of people get together, they can at least be expected to ‘do something’. It doesn’t necessarily follow, however, that they’ll ‘do something’ well. As any moderator worth their salt will tell you, guiding even a small ad hoc group through to successful collective action is a difficult, sometimes impossible job and a draining experience for participants and researchers alike. To imagine that it should get easier as the numbers increase would be foolish. Indeed, according to the great British psychoanalyst WR Bion, ordinarily the challenge is too great for even a modest crowd of strangers, causing a regression to one of three primitive group ‘states’, none of which, as we shall soon see, are particularly advantageous to researchers.

According to Bion, groups have a mental life of their own, separate and distinct from those of its individual members. He saw this ‘group mind’ as an essential part of human life, our need to experience it underpinning our motivation to seek membership. Whilst conducting experimental group therapy at the Tavistock Clinic during the Second World War, Bion became fascinated by how frequently the ‘group mind’ seemed to get disrupted by emotional drives directed towards aims other than those overtly stated. He postulated that on such occasions the ‘group mind’ was acting upon one of three ‘basic assumptions’: that the group had been bought together to be parented by a leader (‘the dependent group’), to fight something or run away from it (‘the fight-flight group’), or to produce a person or idea that would rescue them from their difficulties (‘the pairing group’).

Bion observed that groups wholly under the influence of a ‘basic assumption’, although exhibiting an increased vitality, seemed to lose any capacity for development. Individuals surrendered their distinctive identities to the ‘group mind’ and creative discourse became debased by cliché and stock phrases. New ideas provoked hostile reaction, as if they somehow threatened the status quo. Moreover, groups would suddenly seem more concerned about their continuing existence than the task at hand, and became preoccupied by issues of loyalty and commitment. Evidently, an ‘online community’ in such a state would be of little use to researchers. Yet how are portal managers to keep such pervasive forces at bay? In the words of Bion, ‘the weapons of the workgroup’ are ‘a clear view of its aims’, ‘structure’, and ‘organisation’. The importance of a potent end purpose and a robust community structure (e.g. site rules, status hierarchy and task calendar) has been stressed in an earlier paper, but what about ‘organisation’?

Shouldn’t ‘organisation’ be the job of the portal manager? Not necessarily. Interestingly the basic assumption that most commonly afflicts research-oriented online communities is the ‘dependent group’, where a disorganised membership assumes the brand sponsor to be their ‘leader’. This has various deleterious side effects. Unconsciously members feel in competition with their fellows for the sponsor’s attention, whilst also resenting their own ‘infantile’ lack of control, and consequently tend to be overly critical and aggressive in their contributions. Worse still, as benefit is only derived from a direct dialogue with the ‘leader’, members tend only to speak when addressed by the sponsor, and not to each other. This represents a vicious circle for the organisers. In order to maintain an engaged membership and generate output they need to provide continual care and information, yet the more they provide the more the ‘basic assumption’ is reinforced.

An excellent solution to the ‘dependent group’ problem, and indeed an effective measure against the undue influence of all ‘basic assumptions’, is to appoint members with interpersonal skills and relevant knowledge as community ‘organisers’. Their responsibilities should include guiding newcomers, site policing, assisting with task design and stimulating interaction and content: in short, co-creating an independent, self-organising system with their fellow members. In Bion’s view, group order rising as a product of cooperation between ‘organisers’ and individual members will have the effect of demanding further cooperation, and so forth. Ideally, these ‘organisers’ should be motivated by the role per se but, if not, material incentives are worth considering for the benefits they confer and, indeed, the investment will probably be offset by the reduction in portal management.

Lastly, before ‘basic assumptions’ are demonised irrevocably, it should be mentioned that Bion did not believe them always to be a hindrance. Indeed he considered them to be operating to some degree in all groups, and thought their energy might sometimes be harnessed to further constructive aims. In terms of online communities, for example, the ‘fight-flight group’ might be employed to stimulate content by provoking rivalries between subgroups or between the community and an ‘out-group’; although the portal manager should be on the lookout for abusive behaviour, debased language and other evidence of the ‘basic assumption’ getting the upper hand of reason.

A superior tool, however, is the ‘pairing group’, where members are motivated by a shared hope in an ‘unborn idea’, e.g., a new product, service or website; or a mission (e.g. lower carbon emissions). Nevertheless, Bion also warns us to take great care with our manipulations, for if the ‘unborn idea’ materialises or loses credibility, the ‘group mind’ is left with nothing to hope for, and members quickly lose interest. For these reasons, the ‘pairing group’ strategy is ideally suited to short-to-mid term projects (three months to a year) where the ‘group mind’ has an unambiguous object in which to invest its expectation and a clear deadline (‘view of its aims’), and there’s no time to lose momentum. We should also be reminded here of the group’s obstructive preoccupation with commitment whilst held in thrall by a ‘basic assumption’. The portal manager should be seen to respect this by diligently removing inactive participants and finding (or getting existing members to find) replacements for them, especially in the early stages.

So in summary Bion showed that without ‘structure’, ‘organisation’ and a ‘clear aim’, the ‘mind’ of an online community is likely to default to a ‘basic assumption’, which will stifle group development, creative output and the distinctiveness of its individual members. Aside from comprehensive forward planning, it was proposed that basic assumptions could be combated by entrusting community ‘organisation’ to a few specially selected members. It was also suggested that in some circumstances the ‘basic assumptions’ might be used (cautiously) as leverage: the ‘fight-flight group’, by inciting on-site competition, and more importantly the ‘pairing group’, by focusing the ‘group mind’ for a short-to-mid term period on the creation of an ‘unborn’ product, service etc. Indeed, bearing in mind both the synergies between ‘the pairing group’ and ‘a clear aim’, and the fact that a Web 2.0 platform can be re-skinned for a succession of different projects at very little additional cost, this ‘light that burns twice as bright’ could well prove to be the most successful of all applications of research-oriented online communities.

Jamie Hamilton is managing director of Nqual, an online qualitative software solutions and services provider. www.netfluential.com

November | 2007