Friday, August 10, 2007

Community Creativity and Development - understanding existing community structures

In the second post in this series, I looked among other things at Armidale and Tamworth as a case study of the way in which different local history and culture affected development, arguing that Tamworth's faster business development was directly related to its culture.

Anybody who has dealt with cultural issues at organisational or community level knows that culture is hard and slow to change. So if the culture is opposed to something, that thing will be slow to happen. Given all this, is it in fact possible to improve creativity at community level?

In our view, the answer is clearly yes if the approach is linked to and set within a frame determined by the existing culture. We also think that the answer can be yes - although outcomes are less certain - where approaches require cultural change so long as the cultural change issue is approached indirectly. So how might we do this?

As a strategic consultant, my starting point in dealing with change in organisations is to get to understand the organisation's existing structure and culture since these will strongly influence what can be done, more strongly how it might be done. In conventional consulting terms we often call this a diagnostic.

Exactly the same applies at community level. We need a community diagnostic.

Now when we look at the way this is often done we find a focus on economic factors if the core concern is economic development, social symptoms if the driver is a community problem such as violence in indigenous communities. While both are important, our focus is different.

To begin with, the objective of the community diagnostic as I see it is not to prescribe - any solutions or actions come later - but to understand just where the community currently stands. So it is descriptive and analytical.

All communities have their own economic and population structures, their own embedded attitudes, individual power structures and contact networks, their own social infrastructure. These need to be understood.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that the community diagnostic needs to become a detailed sociological study of the type made famous in Australia by Wild's Bradstow, a pioneering study of Bowral. My focus is strictly practical, acquisition of the information required for community development purposes.

Now there is an obvious problem here in that this type of analysis can be very sensitive indeed. There are several ways of handling this, depending on who is doing the analysis and for what purpose.

Where a professional facilitator or economic development professional is being used, then that professional - while needing to understand - may need to make judgements as to how much to say and how to say it. If your client is the local council, how do you tell the council that it is part of the problem?

Things can in fact be a little easier if the diagnostic is being done by a community activist or group of activists for their own purposes, since they will already have some understanding of the dynamics of the local scene. However, they are likely to suffer from bias induced by closeness. Here the challenge is to follow a sufficiently objective process so that biases are exposed and tested. In all cases, the best initial approach is to focus strongly on factual description, avoiding value judgements.

In my next posts in this series I will try to tease all this a little more by focusing on some of the impediments to development, change and improved community creativity.

Previous post. Next post. Introductory post.

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