FEATURE1 September 2007

Shock to the system

Information flow is key to community survival, says Lee Eyre, as he explores what systems theory can teach researchers looking to build their own online research communities

Online community development is a complex activity which can be a daunting prospect for anyone considering it. There are so many factors and processes involved, it can seem almost impossible to identify any overall guiding principles. However, there is a discipline well suited to the task which we can turn to for assistance.

Originally developed by Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, systems theory is an interdisciplinary field which studies the nature of complex systems in nature, science and society; and it provides a useful analytical framework for thinking about some of the key factors involved in successful community development. Simply defined, a system is any configuration of parts connected by a dynamic web of relationships. Everything is a system of some kind – a cell, a family, a business. The essence of systems theory lies in discovering the patterns of interaction among elements of a system that reoccur again and again leading to predictable dynamic structures.

Of particular relevance to community developers is the way in which systems grow and maintain themselves over time. There is a well established principle in science that everything in the universe progressively runsdown over time – clocks run down, suns burn out, biological organisms age and die, communities break up. This universal tendency towards disorder is known as entropy. Nobel Laureate physicist Erwin Schrodinger pointed out that systems display an opposing tendency which he termed negative entropy (negentropy). They actively cohere, generating and sustaining order by importing and consuming sources of energy. A system is in a constant dynamic balance between the forces of entropy and negentropy – if there is sufficient energy to oppose entropy it will exhibit growth, if not then it will collapse. In physical systems this energy is supplied in the form of some kind of fuel, for example food, however in social systems such as online communities a different kind of ‘energy’ source is required. Researchers Robert Agelink and Nanneke van der Heijden propose that it is information that fulfils this role. They argue that the flow of information around a system is what binds it together as an entity and enables it to self-regulate its internal organisation – it is literally its lifeblood.

For anyone thinking of creating an online community for research purposes, this presents a paradox. Research communities are assembled for the purposes of eliciting information from members; however, systems theory suggests that in order for the community to survive and grow it actively needs to import and consume information. This poses some critical questions – how much information is needed, where will it come from and what should it be about?

It’s tempting to assume that all that is required to fulfill the communities’ appetite for information is to provide regular content in the form of articles, newsfeeds and the like. Whilst undoubtedly important, it’s misleading to think that this alone is enough. There are a number of problems with adopting such an approach.

1. Information flows primarily from the centre outwards.

This fosters dependency on the portal and community manager to supply information rather than encouraging members to contribute their own. Instead of a dynamic web of relations the community becomes more like a wheel with separate spokes connected to a central hub.

2. There is an insufficient variety of information supplied.

Different members have different needs at different times – they may need specific information about a problem, feedback on a task, or simply to relate to other members in order to feel that they are part of a worthwhile and purposeful community.

3. Not enough information is flowing in the system to oppose entropy.

It’s almost impossible for the community manager alone to supply sufficient quantity and variety of information to keep members interested over time.

Social systems theory suggests an alternative strategy might be more successful. An abundant supply of information is already potentially available in the form of each of the community members who have an enormous amount to contribute if they can be successfully engaged. Viewed from this perspective the question becomes not ‘How do we provide enough content to members to keep them interested?’ but rather ‘How do we tap into the information resources already potentially available within the community?’

The solution is to shift focus away from thinking in terms of centralised content supply and instead to begin to think in terms of creating pathways between members along which information can begin to flow freely.

There are no hard and fast rules about how to do this and community developers need to exercise creativity and imagination to find ways to stimulate interaction between members. Creating sub-groupings within the community, organising online social events, setting collaborative tasks, getting members to discover and feedback things about each other – these are just a few of many ways to get information flowing around the community. The nature of the means employed is actually a secondary consideration as long as it increases and strengthens connections between members. The technical construction of the portal must also support and facilitate connections and the easy exchange of information. Interactive forums, blogs, personalised profile information, personal on-site mail boxes, content management etc are all important technological enablers for an online research community.

Most importantly, systems theory teaches us to recognise that a community is a complex dynamic social system which requires a continual flow of information amongst members in order to grow and survive. Alongside the technology, people also need to be given reasons and opportunities to communicate; only then can the community establish the social pathways and bonds necessary to hold it together. The aim of the community developer must be to provide both.

Lee Eyre is operations director at Nqual, an online qualitative software solutions and services provider.www.netfluential.com 
September | 2007