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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Defining Features of a Megacommunity

As social scientists who have been examining social networks over the past three decades show us, communities that acknowledge and tap into differences are generally more successful than those that cling to homogeneity. The true value of a community, and of a megacommunity, is its diversity. Smaller, tighter networks are less useful to their members than networks with many loose connections — in this field referred to as “weak ties” — to individuals outside the main network. As the Harlem Initiative proved, the need to reach out for additional, different, and complementary support is essential, marking megacommunities, in network jargon, “scale-free” (that is, they can scale up at will, and they’re unlimited). Typically, megacommunities will form “open” networks, with many weak ties and social connections through which members are more likely to introduce new ideas and opportunities, as opposed to “closed” networks, with many redundant ties.

We believe that members of all three sectors must develop a better understanding of network forces, in addition to market forces, as they design megacommunity initiatives. Networked operating models continue to jump to the forefront as organizations seek to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Networks are being used to achieve radical new levels of organizational integration and performance. Understood as a network, a megacommunity can achieve the same result for a group of organizations.

Adaptability. Consider, on the one hand, the static nature of many public–private partnerships. When conflicts or new issues arise, such partnerships do not always allow for pathways along which the parties can respond. Their highly focused engagement has no dynamic dimension to it. The terms are set as part of the partnership. They are locked down.

Megacommunities, on the other hand, are much more dynamic. They are open to new members and entrants, continually poised for new activities, and deliberately open to change in their objectives and methods.

Over time, a healthy megacommunity becomes more effective in its purpose. It develops an increasingly common language that is used by people from all three sectors who belong to it. With sustained connections and continued interactions, participants in megacommunities develop bonds, intellectual pathways, enhanced linguistic abilities, and even a higher capacity for critical thinking and problem solving around the set of vital interests that caused the megacommunity to form in the first place.

Another important aspect of a megacommunity’s adaptability is the fact that when changes occur, they do so without hierarchical decision making and external intervention. The megacommunity constantly evolves and learns, almost like a living entity. But this evolution is not guided by command and control. Instead, things happen through alignment, through the collective behavior of all members. The sum of those behaviors is the essence of the megacommunity.

In an electronic network, for example, when information packets coursing through a computer conflict with each other and overflow each other’s buffers, causing overall performance to go down, an adaptive network management control capability kicks in and adjudicates the problem. This is not some centralized decision-making system — it is a distributed capability operating as an integral part of the network’s design. The concept of megacommunity introduces a similar sort of network management control mechanism in human systems, one that minimizes friction over time and improves the entire network’s efficiency. With no central decision-making entity and no explicit leader of the megacommunity, this represents the only efficient and effective way to manage the network. Although everyone within a megacommunity has influence, no sector or sector chief is truly in charge. One might call it a “control-free zone.”

An observer might reasonably wonder why a comfortable chief executive or head of a government agency or NGO would be interested in operating in a control-free zone in the first place. But transcending the need for central control is a common situation in large, complex systems such as electrical power grids or environmental control systems. In fact, the newest network structures represent a shift from bounded networks, with central control, to unbounded networks. Unbounded, or, as we’ve termed them, scale-free, networks are characterized by distributed administrative control without central authority. They combine previously fragmented operations into more focused processes open to many organizational participants.

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  1. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, The World Café: Shaping Our Futures through Conversations That Matter (Berrett-Koehler, 2005): A methodology of megacommunities. Click here.
  2. Viren Doshi, Gary Schulman, and Daniel Gabaldon, “Lights! Water! Motion!” s+b, Spring 2007: How to reinvigorate our electricity, water, and transportation systems by integrating finance, governance, technology, and design. Click here.
  3. Amitai Etzioni, From Empire to Community: A New Approach to Industrial Relations (Palgrave, 2004): The founder of communitarianism posits a global society with megacommunity-like qualities. Click here.
  4. Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, “The Megacommunity Manifesto,” s+b, Summer 2006: The authors make the argument that great leaders understand how to influence others in megacommunities that they are unable to control. Click here.
  5. Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (Random House, 1992): The celebrated urban planner on why political and business leaders routinely misunderstand each other. Click here.
  6. Reggie Van Lee, Lisa Fabish, and Nancy McGaw, “The Value of Corporate Values,” s+b, Summer 2005: Corporate values as the foundation for organizations that want to play a bigger role in solving global problems. Click here.
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