Stakeholder engagement and community building

Nascent engagement processes emerging in companies around the globe mirror community building dynamics happening in wider society. Both represent an epochal change in the way we communicate. And as we recognise the profundity and pervasiveness of this change, the principles that underpin these global changes have the potency to inform and guide our engagement efforts in our local contexts. We will never go back to how we were.

Mankind collectively is approaching a state of maturity, never seen before on the planet. We are emerging from a turbulent adolescence to adulthood. The communication of our collective childhood and adolescence was (and to a large extent, still is) characterised by conflict and contention and occurred in societal structures that created privilege and power for an elite. Some of that residual power flowed, then trickled, down the ranks. Can you think of a period of our history where this wasn’t the case? If you can, I imagine you will find it was an aberration from the norm.

The communication of engagement

As we started to formalise the study of communication, the first models that emerged, post-World War Two, were transmission models of communication.  These presented communication as “getting the message” and focussed on external noise that impeded communication flow. The complexity of the people involved in communication wasn’t really factored in. There can be no true communication where there is an imbalance of power.

A contemporary model of communication that better equips us for engagement and the profound changes referred to above is Susan O’Rourke and Sandy Barnett’s shared meaning model. Here, true communication is that intersection in the understanding of two parties.

shared meaning

As our mutual understanding develops, the area of intersection grows. This model aligns nicely with the engagement ethos, applying to our workplaces and communities.

This blog has focussed on the business world, but parallel engagement processes can be seen in communities and nations around the world. People are finding greater cohesiveness in neighbourhoods, crises are invoking a unified response in effected communities and the widespread protests in the Middle East sees people revolting against old models of power.

Community building

Christchurch’s horrific earthquake has bought out the best in the community. There have been two parallel responses, the impressive institutional response from government and NGOs, and the inspirational grass roots response. Among the latter are the Student Volunteer Army and the “Farmy Army”. These two groups have emerged independently to rid the suburbs of an estimated 260,000 tonnes of silt generated by liquefaction. The Student Volunteer Army, in teams from 5 to 1000, has to date completed over 1,500 jobs logged on their website by needy Christchurch citizens. The opportunity connect with fellow human beings in a time of crisis, I suspect will be life-changing both for those receiving the help, and the young people so freely giving of themselves. A spokesman for the volunteer army, Louis Brown, described the phenomena to TV3’s Mike McRoberts “An incredible effort; people stepping up, taking leadership, building trust with people that’s not necessarily earned but given to each other in a matter of hours is incredible stuff”.  The images of the Student Volunteer Army marching the streets also serves to soften negative stereotypes of young people.

The student volunteer army on the streets of Christchurch (from TVNZ – click here for the YouTube video)

Another development that may well have a more long-lasting impact is the development of neighbourhood forums. The Rebuild Christchurch website offers a tool for people to build an online community, based on their neighbourhood. Hopefully we are emerging from the nadir of decades of dislocation in our suburban bubbles to rediscover our neighbourhoods.

Engagement lessons

What are the engagement lessons that we can glean from these events?

  • While government/authority support is vital, grass-roots initiatives can mobilise people quickly for the community’s benefit.
  • The burden of cost is reduced as communities become more self-reliant and resilient.
  • Tools of technology facilitate engagement and community building.
  • The “armies” formed themselves and didn’t need to be “empowered”. Democracies enable this – most organisations don’t.

From these lessons we can distil some principles and values to guide our engagement aspirations – but I will leave you to do that☺. I would appreciate hearing through comments how this relates to where you work.


  1. Peter,
    Great blog – love the My/Your/Shared Meaning visual. Simple, elegant and true. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, an epicenter of how a common issue is being used to divide, rip and tear at the fabric of U.S. society. I hope you’ll read and comment on my brief blog, linked above, and also that you’ll check out the underlying site,, which seeks to establish a transactional, market-place based, alternative to corporate systems – one in which the real species, human beings, can become locally connected and interconnected again, and begin to build an alternative to unsustainable force of for-profit capitalism, with it’s lifeless, out-of-control, for-profit entities, which are divorced from the accountability that should go along with their power.

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