Since the beginning of the “software revolution” decades ago, “communities” have been at the forefront of advancing knowledge, ideas, and even organizations in the technology space. From user-groups to associations, from standards bodies to open-source coding, community has been an essential part of the story.
Every single company of any size in the space understood this and invested in these loose structures. I had the pleasure of leading a group at Microsoft that was responsible for the relationship between the company and the entire body of IT Professionals, Developers, and Designers in the US- a group that ran into millions; as part of that, we invested heavily in user-groups and other community formations. Of all the parts of the job, this work was the most fulfilling- partially because one could see ideas advancing, partnerships forming, and as such we could revel in the spirit of cooperation that defines community.
Of late, I’ve noticed a diminution of the idea of community and an associated de-investment from the large players. On the one hand, this is understandable—all ideas go through business cycles in which they go in and out of favor. Secondly, in a business world often myopically focused on ROI and measurement, investment in community is seen as too unrigorous and unquantifiable. Finally, the set of companies in the tech media that developed resources, products, and content for communities have by and large gone the way of the dodo.
Whatever the reasons, this turn is a mistake. Despite the gargantuan size and overwhelming power of just 9 or 10 tech companies, the acceleration of innovation in technology is very much the result of organic and free association amongst kindred spirits who get more joy out of discovery and interconnection than they do worshipping at the altar of Mammon.
One area in which this rings true is the world of data. Data communities are important. Without contextual reference points, deep vertical knowledge, experience in acting upon data points, and a critical mass of fellow travelers, data is often useless, even a burden. Studies indicate that technologists and even business-technology hybrid professionals learn the most by ideating and sharing with their peers. Communities take on lives of their own and ultimately become the generative mechanism for commerce and growth.
In the enterprise world, the biggest complaint about data is that it is fragmented and siloed and that there is no single version of the “truth.” Strangely, data professionals too often mimic this siloed approach. We need more community-spirit amongst data mavens. It’s a must.