Lifecycle models are very important in capturing and reasoning about community dynamics. One well-known model is Richard McDermott's (2000) five-stage model of community development. The stages he distinguishes are: Planning, Start-up, Growth, Sustain, and Close. It is a typical model of birth, growth, maturity, and death.
In this post, I would like to focus on the maturity stage. Naive views often see maturity as a form of stasis: growth happened before (during 'childhood' and 'puberty'), but during maturity the community is stable. Of course, lots of activity still takes place, but member roles, types of activities and the structural design of the supporting technical system do not change too much anymore. However, maturity, as in living creatures, really is much more of a dynamic equilibrium: the seeming stability is only the resultant of many processes and forces acting below the surface. In his model, McDermott alludes to this view by saying that during the Sustain-stage, communities grow and change as well, going through cycles of high and low energy.
In their related, more extensive community life cycle model, Wenger et al. (2002, p.109) say that the radical transformation or death of a community is just as natural as its birth, growth, and life, and that even the healthiest communities come to a natural end. They distinguish different ways in which communities can transform themselves: fading away, dying by turning into a social club, splitting or merging, or becoming institutionalized. The way they see transformation seems to focus on the end of the community, when it loses its identity. Is it always necessary to die as a community to radically transform, however?
An question that intrigues me is what it would mean to have a community radically transform itself while keeping its identity, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly? Would it actually matter for a community to keep its identity in a major transformation? How could you know that the old community is still there, although its form may have (unrecognizably) changed? Are there specific indicators that could identify the need for transformation rather than gradual change? What processes would you need to transform without identity loss? What would be the qualitative difference with a community that has lost its identity by merging with another one? Anybody any thoughts?
R. McDermott (2000). Community Development as a Natural Step. Knowledge Management Review, 3(5):6,17-19.
E. Wenger, R. McDermott, and W. Snyder (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press.