Getting Oriented to a Subculture or Community of Practice

Birds of a feather flock together: in addition to asking for referrals, entrepreneurs exploring a new market are well advised to ask early prospects what groups or communities they belong to. Here are some techniques we have found useful for getting oriented to a subculture or community of practice.

Getting Oriented to a Subculture or Community of Practice

Origami Birds Flock Together: Getting Oriented to a SubcultureIt’s common for an entrepreneur to discover that many of their early prospects will cluster together, that they are all members of a particular community of practice or subculture that the entrepreneur is not a member of and perhaps not familiar with at all.

When we are helping clients with a new technology, we look very hard for communities that are already working with the technology or related technologies. We also look for communities that are focused on managing a problem or addressing an opportunity we would like to aim the technology at.

I want to outline three mindsets and three techniques that we have found useful for understanding the subculture of a group that’s new to you.

Three Mindsets That Enable Effective Exploration

  • Novice / Newcomer:  be willing to ask “stupid questions.” Learn the terms they use with each other to describe situations. Ask them how they currently address the challenges that you plan to address with your offering. Listen patiently, take notes, and stay in novice mode so that you make sure you fully discover how they view the problem.
  • Anthropologist / Ethnologist: pay attention to the common view of how the world works. Understand what behaviors and values are rewarded and which are discouraged. Assume the spirit of appreciative inquiry to understand how they have been successful–before you attempt to address one or more problems people mention. Look for changes that have occurred outside of the community that members have yet to adjust to fully.
  • Journalist / Blogger: formally interview members to collect stories and publish them within the community. This role allows you to add value immediately and to connect and have conversations with a breadth of members. Bring a neutral point of view to what you write so that it’s accurate as to facts and quotes. See if there are opportunities to publish within the community as well as on your own website.

Type of Community Members You May Meet

  • Pioneers and Founders: those who established the community are effectively the leaders. Their views and behavior often define the “unwritten rules.” Many niche communities are managed by a self-perpetuating oligarchy, understand who they are.
  • Members in Good Standing: these are the well respected members who make up the backbone of the community. It’s your goal to join their ranks.
  • Other Newcomers / Homesteaders: they are also new to the community and want to become a member in good standing. It can be useful to compare notes on what you have learned because they have not yet fully assimilated the community paradigms. They may be more motivated to change the status quo: they may become your co-conspirators to the extent you can align with the deep purpose and emerging needs of the community.
  • Tourists / Travelers: these are folks who are passing through. They may be trying to copy what’s working for another community or trying to broker relationships with other communities they are already a member of. Sometimes they are lost. Be careful of those who don’t plan to return as they may engage in short term tactics that may damage your reputation by association.
  • Innovators: look for others who are trying to bring positive change to the community. Distinguish between those who are simply complaining and those who are working for positive change. Follow Phil Agre advice: “Collect people in your profession who have novel ideas. Combine their ideas with your own in novel ways.”

Track the Evolution of Your Mental Models and Maps of the Community

  • Capture your first impressions. It’s amazing how accurate early intuitions can be. It’s useful to revisit and update them to improve your discernment skills.
  • Keep track of what you find confusing. What are behaviors or practices that seem to be a waste, counter-productive, or with benefits that are not clear? There is normally a strong reason for it or an advantage that can be hard to spot. Find it, and you learn an important truth.
  • Map communications channels and heartbeats. A community needs multiple channels of communication, common interests, and a shared sense of identity. There is often one or more “heartbeat” communications or meetings (could be a daily newspaper, a weekly church meeting, a monthly luncheon, or an annual conference). One strong test for a community is that if someone misses a regular meeting and no longer takes part in regular communication, other members go looking for them.

In Closing: Market vs. Community

A market is a set of buyers who reference each other purchase decisions. For example, Amazon  shoppers constitute a market.  They are interested in each other’s reviews. But they don’t form a community due to limited opportunities for two-way communication and the lack of a heartbeat communication channel.

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Photo Credit: “Origami Birds Flock Together” © Ruslan Iefremov (Licensed from 123RF / Image ID: 43869476)

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