“A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members…”
- Wendell Berry

In the days immediately after giving birth, I gave thanks for a listserv.

It was Day 4 of my daughter’s life, and I was having trouble nursing (sorry if that’s TMI [too much information]). In a moment of desperation, I sent an email to the neighborhood parenting listserv: “Need in-home lactation consultant this weekend please.” Within minutes, several strangers had emailed me the names and contact information of consultants who lived within a five-block radius of me. Talk about customer service.

A couple of months later, I turned to the listserv for nanny recommendations. One woman replied to me and asked if I might consider daycare; if so, she highly recommended a place about a mile from my apartment. Her email really got my husband and me thinking, and we ended up visiting the daycare and falling in love with it; our daughter is there now, as I type this.

Of course, the way I’ve described the listserv so far doesn’t really illustrate collaboration at work. Fellow listserv members helped me — and, in other instances, I helped them — but we didn’t exactly “collaborate.” We didn’t create something together. But wait — if it takes a village to raise a child (and I believe it does); and if this listserv put me in touch with village members I otherwise wouldn’t have known existed; then is it maybe an example of collaboration after all?

In other words, is community a form of collaboration?

I’d posit that the answer is “yes.”

Quid Pro Quo

A community can help you do something better than you could have done it alone, whether that something is being a parent or being a journalist. As Josh Stearns of Free Press recently wrote on Collaboration Central, journalists are increasingly coming together to form ad-hoc networks of support. In other words, journalists are helping each other do their jobs, whether by sharing news tips or safety precautions or the best place in town to get a camera repaired. They are forming communities (Stearns uses the term “solidarity”), and collaborating within those communities on matters editorial, legal, and operational.

Back to my parenting listserv. Are we really collaborating with each other, or just helping each other out? Scratch beneath the surface and “help” and “collaborate” may not mean such different things. In an editorial collaboration, one news organization may “help” another by providing complementary resources or expertise. Is this help provided free of charge, out of the goodness of someone’s heart? No, probably not.

But the parenting listserv doesn’t necessarily run on goodness, either. On some level, I help other members because other members help me. That’s human nature. Of course, I’m happy to help another mom if I have information at my fingertips that she needs, or to share an experience. But as a member of the listserv, of the community, I expect the help will flow back to me, as well.

Adios, Silos

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Silos dominate our world.

Two newsrooms come together to conduct an investigation. They share staff; they share budgets. On the other hand, two freelance journalists come together. They share story leads, sources, lessons learned from the field. Two parents come together. They share daycare recommendations, news about product recalls, and warnings about wayward dentists. (This really happened.) Whether the outcome is a news report, a scoop or an informed parent (or healthier, happier child) — behind the scenes, the pattern is the same: individuals with a common interest coming together, instead of functioning as silos.

This is remarkable because of just how many silos continue to dominate our world.

In my consulting work, for example, I’m struck by how many organizations still have a culture where departments operate in isolation — where an employee has no idea that the person in the office next door has information that could help her do her job better. Christa Avampato recently wrote about an innovative way to get executives and lower-level employees talking and collaborating on new product ideas.

It’s staggering, really, when you consider how revolutionary it would be for more co-workers to just talk to each other, and for more people to just talk to other people in their field.

It’s the People, Stupid

But for now, it’s still noteworthy when a community forms, and holds up over time. In public media — an industry where I’ve spent a lot of my career — it took a handful of individuals starting a weekly Twitter chat (#pubmedia chat, R.I.P.) to get many people across the industry to begin to feel like part of a community. Around the time that chat formed, I happened to be the project manager of a multimillion-dollar collaboration funded in large part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). While we learned a lot from that project (I wrote about it here), I honestly think the chat ultimately had a greater ripple effect in terms of increasing collegiality and collaboration industrywide.

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Ian Hill, a member of the public media Facebook group, created this graphic as a joke. We have serious discussions, too. Really.

Why? Because relationships, not organizations, fuel collaboration. In fact, the best outcome I saw from the CPB-funded collaboration wasn’t one of the contractually obligated editorial deliverables — it was the relationships between individuals. A producer at the PBS NewsHour now knew who to call over at Marketplace, or NPR, and vice versa. These folks now had history together, and therefore trust, and it was easy to just pick up the phone or send an IM. With those channels of communication open, it became easier for collaborations large and small to take root.

To be sure, public media is no paragon of collaboration — like most industries, it has a ways to go. But that Twitter chat morphed into a Facebook group, which, as I recently mentioned, I consider an invaluable professional resource. Like the networks Stearns profiled, this community sprung up because individuals saw a need — and it’s lasted.

A Venn Diagram of Communities

I’m a performer, and in addition to public media and parenting, comedy is yet another community in the Venn Diagram of my life. When I lived in Washington, D.C., Washington Improv Theater was the nexus of my community. Since moving to New York City, I haven’t felt as strong of a connection to a group of performers, but one organization that helps provide a sense of connection is G.L.O.C. — aka Gorgeous Ladies of Comedy (recently profiled in the New York Times). G.L.O.C.‘s mission is to foster community among female comedians. Another vehicle for community among comedians is the Improv Resource Center, message boards that performers all over the country use to discuss the art of improv and related matters.

And my comedy friends from D.C.? We’re currently collaborating on a web series, long-distance, using Google Hangouts.

The human need for community is as old as time. The interwebs just give us new ways to connect. And these connections provide an essential framework for the kind of collaboration that helps us do our jobs better, and with a greater feeling of connectedness … of not being in it alone. It’s almost enough to make a person sing “kumbaya.”

Now You

Do you agree that community is a form of collaboration? And are there areas of your life where you find community lacking — for example, in your workplace? How can you plant the seeds of community in place of silos? What resources do you rely on to help you feel connected to the communities in your life?

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
- Kurt Vonnegut

Amanda Hirsch is the editor of Collaboration Central. She is a writer, social media consultant and performer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The former editorial director of PBS.org, she blogs at amandahirsch.com spends way too much time on Twitter.

Photo above by Flickr user Ed Yourdon.

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