Does your organization think like Ptolemy?


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Who is in your community? It seems like such a simple question.

In reality, your organization probably doesn’t just interact with one community, but a whole host of very different communities and sub-communities. The only thing these communities may share is that they are made up of individual human beings.

When asked to list the groups of people making up an organization’s community, most would probably end up with a list that looked something like this:

- customers
- investors
- donors
- contributors
- partners
- press
- employees

adding a few other groups that might vary depending on the type of work you do.

Most of the ideas listed will probably have one thing in common: they will be defined in the context of the organization. Customers of the organization. Investors in the organization. Partners of the organization. Press covering the organization.

Most people immediately think of communities by defining them with their organization in the center. Sort of like this:

But I bet most of the people in those communities don’t imagine your organization at the center of their universe. So why should you?

To break out of this sort of organization-centric thinking, try the following exercise. Ask yourself:

To which communities does our organization (or, really, the people behind it) belong?

What groups, affiliations, associations, or even loosely connected bands of like-minded people do our organization and the people behind it associate with? Consider things like industry associations, physical communities (like cities, states, or countries), universities or research institutions, political or lobbying groups, developer communities, civic organizations, governmental agencies, and whatever else you can imagine.

Now, rather than framing these organizations in your own context, try to imagine how your organization fits into their universe.

Remember Ptolemy? He was the guy who built a hypothetical model of the solar system with Earth at the center and the Sun and other planets orbiting us. Like this:

Sure, great organizations do create “gravity” that pulls new community members toward them. But they shouldn’t buy into the Ptolemaic point of view that they are at the center of the universe with everyone orbiting around them. Instead, organizations should imagine themselves as one gravitational force situated in a large context amongst many others. More like this:

In my view, one of the keys to building a powerful brand community in a connected world is accepting that your organization is not at the center of the universe.

I recommend approaching your community strategy from a different point of view. Consider:

- How can you become a productive member of the communities surrounding your organization?

- How can you not just create your own organizational gravity, but acknowledge and be “drawn in” by the gravitational force of others as well?

My view? Organizations that stop thinking like Ptolemy and instead picture themselves more humbly and selflessly in a larger context beyond their own needs will have much more luck being accepted by the savvy community members of the digital age.

What do you think?

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3 Comments

sankarshan's picture
Open Minded

Firstly, thanks for another lucid article. I find it somewhat interesting to note that at any point in time a diagram representing the communities would eventually and invariably end up as layers/concentric circles without showing any interconnections.

And, in some way the image emphasizes the perception that communities are groups of folks at various proximities instead of being enmeshed together in a very collaborative give-n-take. More a neural network than an onion :)

cgrams's picture
Open Source Champion

it is sometimes very hard to avoid the self-centered organization viewpoint. Hopefully this could be a tool used to "step out" of that viewpoint, even temporarily... My hope is changing the mindset of how you perceive your role in communities will inspire changes in strategies and tactics as well. Thanks for the great thoughts!

Peter's picture

Well done! A concise argument to see ourselves as others perceives us. A solid step to a more empathic universe for us all. Thanks.