There are a number of social group theory models which can be applied to the online community building, to teach us about how groups go through stages of bonding. Cog’s Ladder in particular provides insight into what are fairly predictable steps groups go through as they develop towards maturity.
The Cog’s ladder model of group development was published by George Charrier in 1972, and was intended to help managers at Procter & Gamble to improve efficiency in their work force by clarifying the dynamics of their teams of staff. The theory is that once a group is formed, it goes through 5 stages before reaching full maturity, which for a Community Manager means a fully cohesive and thriving online community. The key is that groups must go through the process of the current stage fully before they can progress to the next one.
1. Polite Stage
This is the early stage during which community members get to know each other. The social interactions are polite and generally respectful as people learn about others in their community. Discussions are reasonably simple and don’t tend to focus on controversial issues. Community members will also avoid disclosing much about themselves, but judgments about each other will be formed at this stage and will generally set the tone for the community’s future.
2. Why We’re Here Stage
Once your online community members get to the second stage in Cog’s Ladder, they will be investigating the deeper reasons for participating. At this stage, you as the Community Manager should be visible and setting the tone of the discussions, either yourself of by setting up a hosting team, and the goal and purpose of the community should be clear and visible. Participants will have established themselves a bit and won’t be seeking approval and validation as much, and will start organising into smaller groups or cliques.
3. Power Stage
Remember the cliques mentioned earlier? They rear their head in this stage. Either within the cliques or between different cliques, power struggles begin to show, as community members try to establish their pecking order. Your role as the Community Manager will be to stay on top of these warring factions, and attempt to limit the effect they have on the rest of the community. Those not wishing to participate in the bids for power will start retreating from conversations, and you will need to stifle their oppression whilst encouraging them to continue to feel they can speak freely.
4. Cooperation Stage
If you manage to navigate the stormy Power Stage, then you’ll enter much calmer waters. During the Cooperation Stage, community participants re-open their minds to others’ opinions and start valuing input other than their own. Essentially, we move from personal and self-interested benefit from participating in the online community, to an attitude which promotes the group’s interests. The level of new discussions can climb exponentially during this stage, as members achieve success in reaching their goals and furthering their understanding of topical issues, and help others to do so too. However, the Eternal September syndrome needs to be addressed at this stage as new people joining your community may cause a loop back through the earlier stages.
5. Esprit Stage
Some of you may have heard the expression “Esprit de corps”, which comes from a rule put forward by Henri Fayol, who believed that great team spirit leads to harmony and unity, and should be aimed for at all cost. If your online community reaches this Esprit Stage, congratulations! You are one of the few Community Managers to have achieved the near-impossible. Very rare are communities or groups which reach this stage, of high cohesiveness and a feeling of single unified spirit, working towards a common goal in harmony.
Here’s a neat diagram to illustrate.
Have you found that Cog’s Ladder applies to your online community?
[photo By Robert Couse-Baker]