The ecosystem of business is changing, and so are the players. In the not-so-distant future, narrow terms like “employee” and “customer” will no longer suffice. Take Airbnb. Hosts aren’t employees, but they do play the role of client services and inventory management. They aren’t customers either, yet they are wooed by the company as if they were. In the eyes of the law, they might be contractors, but the definition still falls short in meaning.
Businesses don’t have employees and customers any longer; they have communities where value can be created in new ways and come from unexpected places. A savvy social media maven can have a more direct impact than any member in marketing. Paid or not, a single influencer can create interest in a product, service or brand way beyond what an individual customer ever could.
Roles are changing on the inside as well. It’s not difficult to imagine a corporation expanding the responsibilities of employees and investing in training to help individuals become more effective brand advocates in person and online. What about alumni? If handled well, a former employee can and will want to contribute—buying products, telling others or even by recommending the next hire. Inside and out, these people all add to the business, but some of the most essential players in the system can’t be controlled through paychecks and mandates.
As new players emerge and old positions fade, it’s hard to say how these extreme hybrid roles evolve. What is evident is that business leaders must change how they see the world; they need to zoom out, so they can better understand who is connected to what. In the future, we won’t be talking about companies trying to attract employees and sell to customers. The conversation will be about one community, inside and out, working together to achieve a single purpose. And when a business’ control over these sometimes-paid roles is tentative at best, the best tool we have is culture.
Designing a company culture isn’t enough anymore. Sophisticated brands will foster and create the culture of their external communities. It may not be as far-off in the future or as extraordinary as it sounds. The early precursor of this trend lies in work done by community managers and social media directors. They listen, support champions with status and rewards, and rush to soothe disgruntled participants.
Outside of those roles, community culture design isn’t a practice most companies have experience with. But there is a category of business that can teach other companies a thing or two: nonprofits. Because the proportion of staff of nonprofits to the people they serve is typically much smaller than that of other organizations, nonprofits can serve as a model for the next evolution of external culture management.
An external culture practice at city-size comes from Victoria Mitchell, the operations leader at Burning Man Project. Mitchell’s team is responsible for the annual evaluation, planning, mapping, communication and on-site placement of approximately 1,500 camps and 55,000 people.
Globally, there are about 100 employees at Burning Man, but most of the people Mitchell works with are volunteers and community leaders. Mitchell sees her job as part city planner and part culture cultivator. She thinks about propagating the culture. Not just for staff, but also across teams, volunteers, camps and Burners, who come together to create one of the largest cities in Nevada for a few weeks every year.
The culture is still a work in progress, and if there is a secret sauce, the Burning Man Project is still working on it. However, there is a thread that has emerged as the organization has grown. Yes, they need to continue the culture, but they’ve also learned autonomy is essential. Individuals and camps want to act out their own unique version of the culture. In fact, some might say that’s the point of the event. Mitchell and her peers realize that success in community culture building will require a balance between the guidance of the organization and the expression of the community.
External culture building won’t be easy. But in the future, when more people who aren’t on the payroll play a role in the business, it will be necessary. You can’t tell people who aren’t paid to follow the rules. But, with the right strategy and tools, it is possible to influence the culture of external communities as much as internal communities. As the distinction of who is inside and outside of an organization gets harder to recognize, the question we should be asking is, how do we inspire, guide, acknowledge and excite our community?
Josh Levine, author of ‘Great Mondays: How to Design a Company Culture Employees Love,’ has spent more than 15 years building culture-driven brands for a wide range of organizations—read his full bio here.