We are ‘Community Research’, so we, of all people, should be clear what we mean by ‘community’. When a client recently asked us what we mean by communities we took a step back to reconsider this important question.

According to the dictionary a community is a group of people who:

• live in the same place or;
• has characteristics or interests in common.
In recent years a new definition has come about:
• a space for collaborating or communicating online.

With regard to this last definition, when you think about it, wherever an online community exists, it is arguably there to meet the needs of a community in the more traditional sense; Mumsnet, for example, is purely an online community, but those who participate clearly have ‘characteristics and interests in common’. So, rather than offering us a new definition of community, this new usage is really only a new way of communities communicating or finding one another.

For any organisation looking at community research, consultation or engagement it is a worthwhile exercise to consider the full range of communities you serve. These might include:

• Geographical communities
• Social, demographic or economic communities
• Business or professional communities
• Communities of interest or attitude
• Communities of circumstance or experience (i.e. users of specific services, staff groups)

Some will identify and actively organise themselves as a community, but some may not. Some communities will have stakeholder representatives or organisations you can easily identify; but others will not.

This is important because as a precursor to an engagement or consultation exercise we often recommend a stakeholder mapping exercise. Traditionally this seeks to map known stakeholders against two axes (see Figure 1. below) – interest and influence. How much interest they have over the decision or policy in question (i.e. how much they will be affected by it) is on one axis and how much influence they have over the issue is on the other. Those most interested or affected will need to be targeted most strongly in the consultation or engagement process; and more effort will be needed to reach those who currently have the least influence.

Communities Diagram

This still makes sense, however, it is worth considering that not all communities with an interest will have existing stakeholder representation.

Because of this, listing and defining the full range of communities you need to engage with should precede any stakeholder mapping exercise.  You then need to compare your list of communities with your list of stakeholders. Is every community represented? If not, you’ll need to decide how best to engage with communities where no obvious stakeholder representation exists; either by seeking out, encouraging or developing such representation or by finding ways to engage with a range of individual members within that community directly.

Get creative

It is here that some creative thinking comes in and defining what community members have in common will be important – their common interests, experiences, locations or behaviours may give you your best clue as to how to engage them. A great example of this kind of creative thought process came to our attention recently. It doesn’t come from the world of consultation or engagement, rather it is an example of creative recruitment practice, but it applies these same principles.

GCHQGCHQ wanted to recruit ‘techno-geeks’ or hipsters to the British intelligence services to fight against cyber-crime and terrorism. They thought about this community’s whereabouts and behaviours. They decided to put ads on pavements in areas like Shoreditch in London (and some similar parts of other major cities) knowing that a high number of tech-startups are based there and that the audience they wanted to attract would be walking the streets, eyes down (looking at their smart-phones.)  Apparently the approach was a huge success at generating applications (even though it did get GCHQ in trouble with the local authority for illegal advertising!).

We believe that thinking about communities in this creative way, before thinking mapping out existing stakeholder connections will make for a more inclusive and successful engagement process.


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