How do leaders emerge in digital communities? Premium

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Virtual communities do not have formal hierarchies or defined roles, so how do their members manage to work together to create innovative solutions such as Wikipedia, Firefox and Linux? Sri Kudaravalli, a professor at HEC Paris, studied how leaders emerge in online communities. His observations and research are highly instructive for anyone considering an alternative to a hierarchically structured organization. Excerpt from the latest issue of Business Digest.

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1. Exploring leadership within digital communities
Sri Kudaravalli and his colleagues developed an integrated framework to study leadership in online communities. Traditional leadership theory posits that leaders assign tasks and manage relationships, while other research shows that influential members occupy central positions in the organizational structure. The researchers set out to discover whether similar ideas also apply to online communities. They surveyed users and studied messages from three online communities focused on technical topics related to programming. They examined both the behaviors and structural positions within the networks of those identified by other participants as leaders.

2. Leaders are expert contributors
The researchers’ findings indicate that leaders are mainly distinguished by their task-based behaviors. They contribute knowledge by answering queries, sometimes sharing programming code, and giving personal assessments. Tenure (duration of membership) and participation were positively associated with being identified as a leader, but the number of questions asked by a participant had a negative association, which indicates that a leader is more likely to provide answers than ask questions.

3. Leaders are better connected
By constructing a matrix of ties between who responded to whom in the online community, the researchers did indeed find that structural social capital was strongly associated with leadership. However, there is no way to tell, based on their study, whether the members identified as leaders achieved their structural position because of their leadership qualities, or if it was the other way around — if they developed their leadership qualities as a result of their structural social capital.


Based on an interview with Sri Kudaravalli and his article “Leading Knowledge Collaboration in Online Communities,” co-written with S. Faraj and M. Wasko (forthcoming in MIS Quarterly); an interview with Kristof Coussement and his article “Identification of Market Mavens on Social Media” co-written with Paul Harrigan, Tim Daly, Julie Lee and Geoff Soutar.

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Succeeding at digital transformation

Based on Leading Digital: Turning Technology into Business Transformation by George Westerman, Didier Bonnet and Andrew McAfee (Harvard Business Review Press, October 2014) and the Interview with Maël Tannou, Head of Digital, Sales and Marketing Solutions, Pernod Ricard Group, January 2015.
Business Digest nº 253, February 2015.