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What’s Invisible is Most Enduring

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My first start-up involved building and buying apartment complexes. It was during the 1980s, after a stint with McKinsey &Company. We reached nearly a quarter-billion dollars in assets before we sold it. What I didn’t realize in building brick and mortar communities, was that they were less durable than virtual communities. How can that be? Buildings have plumbing, electrical, roofs, windows, carpentry, wallboard and flooring. They are ‘rock solid’ — while virtual communities are just tied together by people and their common interests.

The answer didn’t become clear to me until a decade later when I was writing my first book on information and relationships for HarperCollins. One of the people with whom I was collaborating said, during a discussion on the value of intangible assets, “what is invisible is most enduring.” I asked her what she meant. She elaborated, explaining that culture and values are the most enduring characteristics of all human attributes because in the end, they define who we are and how we conduct our daily lives. As a result, she said, our values are the most important things about us, and therefore the most difficult to change.

The same is true for organizations — only in spades (e.g. in companies, change management is very difficult at best — as almost everyone knows) . I thought about her words for many years, but it was not until I started working with companies and boards of directors, helping them build social networks and communities, that I realized the power of her insights.

In short, virtual communities are living, thriving groups of people that are hard to build and even harder to break once built. Even more importantly, companies that have never built communities don’t understand the core ingredients of success. They are too insular and focused on the products and services THEY SELL and not the people they serve and their personal wants and needs. But times are changing, and the ability for all enterprises to look outward — thinking of themselves as simply organizers and facilitators of shared conversations and relationships — is the future. Given this, the current social networking and community movement is not about technology at all. It is about a revolution in culture and values — from competitive to collaborative, from hoarding to sharing, rom closed to open, and from leaders to facilitators. It is a movement that will test all that is invisible in companies and ultimately most enduring — their values, systems, cultures, policies and leaders.

But it is also a movement that, in the end, I hope you and others, like the Time Magazine editor, can ‘get behind’ — because the result will be the true creation of enduring value. – Barry 5/17/06

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