Managing Boundaries between Organizations and Communities

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* Paper: Managing Boundaries between Organizations and Communities: Comparing Creative Commons and Wikimedia. Paper prepared for the 3rd Free Culture Research Conference, October 8-9, 2010, Berlin. By Leonhard Dobusch and Sigrid Quack.


The general question we are addressing is: How do organizations in digital information economy manage the boundaries to related focal communities?


"In this paper we investigate the dialectical relation between informal communities and related formal organizations by looking at Wikimedia and Creative Commons. While delivering their services with the help of related communities of volunteers from the very start, both organizations struggle with dynamics of community development and governance in general and with the management of boundaries between organization and community in particular. In our comparative longitudinal case analysis we contrast attempts of coping with these challenges via partial outsourcing (Creative Commons) and via partial integration (Wikimedia) respectively. Thereby we show why the pragmatist concept of “corrigible provisionality” might be a promising approach for capturing the practices dominating boundary management between organizations and related communities."



Leonhard Dobusch and Sigrid Quack:

"Borders of market and non-market modes of production coevolve, leading to cooperation and conflict between (for-profit) business and (non-profit) civil society organizations in the production of all kinds of cultural goods.

For both types of organizations alike, this leads to new challenges for the management of their respective organizational environment in general and related communities of consumers, users or even contributors in particular; this holds independent of whether these communities are effectively delivering the content of new knowledge services as is the case in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia or the photo-platform Flickr, or whether these are „merely‟ contributing with feedback to the marketability of products and services. Both online and offline, organizations increasingly face the non-trivial task of mobilizing communities of practice (Wenger 1998), whose members mostly do not belong to the organization itself. This integration of user and practice communities in the core processes of good and service provision seriously blurs the boundary between organization and environment, making its management via specialized “boundary spanning units” (xxx) difficult at best, obsolete at worst.


Especially organizations, which strive as “market rebels” (Rao 2009) to alter established norms, taken-.for-granted assumptions and market structures, regularly rely on (the resources of) communities of consumers, users or practice; facilitating such communities poses challenges similar to those of managing volunteers (Lofland 2006) and is of utmost importance for the social-movement-like struggles of those organizations, be they non-profit or for-profit. Following King and Pearce (2010), such community-based attempts of creating or changing market institutions work via influencing corporate strategies, participating in private regulatory endeavours and/or the creation of new actor categories within globalizing economic fields."


(Researchers) "share a reluctance to investigate the relationship between communities and related formal organizations (Mayntz 2008; for a notable exception see O‟Mahoney and Bechky 2008) in processes of mobilization and coordination. Group structures and dynamics of communities are typically characterised as informal and portrayed as stark contrast to classic organizational bureaucracies (see, for example, Hemetsberger and Reinhardt 2009). But while hardly any of the different phenomena subsumed under the umbrella of diverse community concepts above evolves completely detached from related formal organizational bodies, digital communities in particular rely on commercial (e.g. Canonical in the case of Ubuntu Linux) or non-profit (e.g. Wikimedia Foundation in the Wikipedia case) carrier organizations or “platforms” (Elkin-Koren 2009b).

In spite of its relevance, formal organizing is not identical to the organizational features and dynamics of its respective communities. In spite of partial overlaps, we conceptualize communities as being part of an organization‟s enivornment, the borders being continually and reciprocally re-produced and re-shaped by the actors involved (Giddens 1984). In this regard, formal organizing may (strategically) irritate, influence, foster, guide and control community development but it is not community development itself. This is similar to the relationship between a social movement and related social movement organizations (see, for example, Della Porta and Diani‟s 2006). Existing typologies of these or similar civil society organizations however rarely cover organizational fluidity and change rooted in reciprocal interactions of community and organization (e.g. Salomon und Anheier 1996; Anheier und Themudo 2005a, 2005b). Similarly, the efficacy of organizations in giving orientation, direction and voice to diffuse communities in their attempts of challenging institutions is understudied (Mayntz 2008; for an exception see O‟Mahoney and Bechky 2008). Both these shortcomings are even more salient for the case of organizations, whose transnational scope of activities require addressing heterogeneity of community members rooted in national and local diversity. Therefore, the general question we are addressing is: How do organizations in digital information economy manage the boundaries to related focal communities?


We compare two prominent examples of transnational non-profit franchising: In the case of Creative Commons an organizational network around a focal non-profit NGO develops and propagates a set of alternative copyright licenses. Founded in 2002, Creative Commons managed to port its licenses into 50 local jurisdictions with the help of over 70 affiliate organizations within no more than 6 years (Dobusch and Quack 2010). As Creative Commons licenses can be applied to all kinds of copyrightable material – from audio and video to educational and scientific works – Creative Commons has to deal with (demands of) a fast growing and highly diverse community of license users. The second case we are investigating is Wikimedia, which has been created as a formal organization to support the communities behind Wikipedia and its related sister projects such as Wiktionary, Wikinews or Wikibooks.2 While having been established as a US-based foundation in 2003, it officially recognizes 21 local “Wikimedia chapter” organizations by the end of 2008. These Wikimedia chapters have all been newly set up and are legally and financially autonomous.

In both cases the formal organization provides a regulatory framework, within which communities of contributors create (a commons of) digital goods and services. This, together with further similarities of Creative Commons and Wikimedia in terms of founding date (2002 and 2003 respectively), place (US) and organizational form (non-profit franchise network) as well as in terms of central mission (community building and development), allows focusing three theoretically interesting differences in terms of (1) organizational structure, (2) organization-community relation and (3) transnationalization process.


We use this distinction between “formal organizing” and “organized informality” to differentiate between “community” and “organization”, which is a precondition for analyzing their reciprocal conditionality: Of course, communities are not “un-organized” as they rely on implicit and explicit rules, its members consciously share a sense of belonging, and they regularly evolve around some form of formal organizational body.3 But differently to formal organizations, community membership is acquired via self-identification, decisions are made without reference to any legally binding rules and there is no “shadow of hierarchy” (Heritiér and Lehmkuhl 2008). Taken together these characteristics lead to the egalitarianism inherent in many community self-descriptions.4 This egalitarian notion of the community concept may be at odds with huge actual status differences among community members but lies nevertheless orthogonally to the implicitness of hierarchical structures within formal organizations, however decentralized, heterarchical or “organic” (Burns and Stalker 1961) these may be.


Community participation has to be differentiated from classical forms of corporate worker participation (Sydow 1999; xxx; Demirovic 2007) and from participation in non-profit organizations (see, for example, Kriesi 1996; Della Porta and Diani 2006): Both these forms of participation regularly solely relate to members of the organization.. In our case, however, we are interested particularly in participation in intra-organizational decision-making processes by communities, which mostly consist of non-members; intentionally extending organizational borders to include most or even all of the community members is thus an extreme or fringe case of community participation. Lastly, we are not dealing with classical forms of inter-organizational relations (see Sydow 1992), since the organization is not cooperating with another formal entity." (

Typology of Community Participation

Leonhard Dobusch and Sigrid Quack:

"The two-by-two matrix in Figure 1 leads to four ideal types of organization-community-relations:

  • In the case of benevolent dictatorship a single organization sets the scene for the activities of a related community without admitting community members to the organization‟s decision making. Many prominent examples of digital communities such as Facebook or Flickr (see Ritzer and Jurgensen 2010) rely on benevolent dictatorship of a corporation, which provides and determines the technological and legal framework for community development.
  • In an organizational network or coalition several legally and financially autonomous organizations jointly undertake this task, but still do not provide community members with access to their decision making.
  • While commercial carrier organizations also experiment with community participation (e.g. “user innovation”, see Braun and Herstatt 2009; von Hippel 2001, 2006), modes of organizing that resemble the ideal types of representative or grassroots democracy are more common in non-commercial settings. In representative democracies, the constituency of community members takes part in the election of representatives within formal organizational bodies.
  • In grass-roots democracies, membership-based organizations allow formal participation and self-governance, regularly in addition to representative democratic elections. Examples are the Debian project8 in the realm of open source software development and, as will be presented in this article, Wikimedia. In these cases community members can influence the formal organization either by direct democratic votes or by becoming part of a membership-based organization, whose divisions act (more or less) autonomously on behalf of its respective members."


Comparing Wikipedia and Creative Commons

Leonhard Dobusch and Sigrid Quack:

"Both, Creative Commons and the now famous online-encyclopedia Wikipedia share the fundamental vision of creating and promoting a global “commons” of freely available digital goods. Wikimedia hosts a framework of hardware (webspace and bandwith), software (the wiki-engine “MediaWiki”)10 and legal rules (copyleft licenses) for several projects of commons-based peer production (Benkler 2006) such as the already mentioned examples Wikipedia, Wikibooks or Wiktionary. Creative Commons, in turn, delivers a set of open content licenses to – not only, but also – legally enable and foster such commons-based peer production projects as put forward by Wikimedia and more generally to build a growing body licensed works for sharing and remixing. Consequently, before Wikimedia eventually adopted one particular Creative Commons license in 2009, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales regularly stated that “Wikipedia, had it been founded after Creative Commons, would have certainly been under a Creative Commons license.”11 The timeline in Figure 2 gives an overview of the most important events in the development of both cases, which are described in more detail in the following two sections. While Wikipedia was founded shortly before Creative Commons in 2001, its organizational carrier – the Wikimedia Foundation – was founded about half a year after Creative Commons had formally launched its first set of alternative copyright licenses in December 2002.

Interestingly, independent from one another, both organizations very soon after their foundation started to transnationalize their formal organization by developing a transnational network of locally rooted organizations – something we refer to a as a “political franchising network” Similar to “strategic networks” in the realm of business research (see Jarillo 1993; Sydow 1992). Their strategies of building such an organizational network were however quite distinct. While Creative Commons followed something we would call a “political franchise” approach, i.e. bonding and cooperating with existing organizations, Wikimedia betted on newly founded grass-root organizations for its internationalization. This difference in strategy in turn also leads to different challenges in managing the relationship between formal organization and informal community: the very fast transnationalization as a consequence of the political franchise approach also partially led to unsustainably small groups of local activists, while the “grassroots approach” slowed down transnationalization in the first place.


Comparing Transnationalization Dynamics:

To better explain the unequal transnationalization and participation dynamics, we take a second and more contrasting look at both organizational developments and idiosyncrasies and their consequences for community management and development.

Figure 6 depicts the growth of the three types of transnational entities mentioned in the above case descriptions, namely Creative Commons‟ jurisdiction projects with ported license versions, local Wikimedia chapter organizations and Wikipedia language projects reaching the 100-contributor-threshold. Although both Creative Commons and Wikimedia experienced astonishing transnational growth in the first years of their existence,32 Creative Commons managed to establish more than twice as many local jurisdiction projects with ported license sets (49) than local chapters had been approved by the Wikimedia Foundation (21) by the end of 2008 (see Figure 6). The relatively slow organizational transnationalization of Wikimedia is even more in need of explanation when compared to the growth of Wikipedia language projects. Before the first Wikimedia chapter was launched in Germany in 2004, 17 different language projects had already reached over 100 regular contributors, some of them even over 1,000 contributors.

To better explain the unequal transnationalization and participation dynamics, we take a second and more contrasting look at both organizational developments and idiosyncrasies and their consequences for community management and development.

Figure 6 depicts the growth of the three types of transnational entities mentioned in the above case descriptions, namely Creative Commons‟ jurisdiction projects with ported license versions, local Wikimedia chapter organizations and Wikipedia language projects reaching the 100-contributor-threshold. Although both Creative Commons and Wikimedia experienced astonishing transnational growth in the first years of their existence,32 Creative Commons managed to establish more than twice as many local jurisdiction projects with ported license sets (49) than local chapters had been approved by the Wikimedia Foundation (21) by the end of 2008 (see Figure 6). The relatively slow organizational transnationalization of Wikimedia is even more in need of explanation when compared to the growth of Wikipedia language projects. Before the first Wikimedia chapter was launched in Germany in 2004, 17 different language projects had already reached over 100 regular contributors, some of them even over 1,000 contributors.

Adjusting the data presented in Figure 6 for the different founding dates makes differences in the transnationalization dynamic even more obvious: although setting up a new language project is relatively trivial a task compared to porting a set of copyright licenses into a foreign jurisdiction, Creative Commons managed to transnationalize faster than Wikipedia was able to establish language projects with more than 100 contributors (see Figure 3). The growth of Wikimedia chapter organizations clearly lags behind. This may be due to Wikimedia‟s “greenfield strategy” (Harzing 2002) built upon grass-roots activism, as opposed to Creative Commons‟ approach of strategic partnerships with already existing organizations, which obviously allowed a faster transnationalization.

For the subsequent change in transnationalization dynamics – slower growth rates in the Creative Commons Case after mid-2006, faster growth rate in the Wikimedia case beginning in mid-2008 – the following explanations can be given: In the case of Creative Commons, the professional legal network was exhausted as a “breeding ground” for affiliate partners by mid-2006, Creative Commons being more and more dependent on non-legal affiliate organizations, as has been shown in section 4.1 above. In the case of Wikimedia, the grass-roots approach obviously requires a longer handling time to establish a chapter organization, leading to time-lag compared to the Creative Commons case.

These differences in strategic conduct and outcome, however, were highly contingent on the organizations constituents and tasks.

First, the legal epistemic community (Haas 1992; Dobusch and Quack 2010) behind Creative Commons provided relatively privileged access to resources of their hosting organizations such as university law schools, law firms or think tanks. So, the challenge was and still is not so much acquiring legal expertise and basic funding but rather spreading the concept among local communities of potential license users. Contrariwise, Wikimedia at least in the realm of its Wikipedia project could rely on a rapidly growing community of contributors and users, which due to their various backgrounds did not as easily provide financial or other organizational resources. This difference is particularly salient in developing countries, where sustainable funding for grass-roots activism is much more difficult than in industrialized countries. In Latin America, for example, only in the relatively rich Argentina Wikipedians were able to legally establish a Wikimedia chapter, while Creative Commons found local partner organizations in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru. Consequently Damian Finol, a Wikipedian from Venezuela and member of the Wikimedia chapter committee, explains his failure in setting up a local Wikimedia chapter since 2006 with problems such as raising enough travel funds for foundational meetings and for securing equal participation possibilities for geographically scattered members.

Second, the multiplicity of individual backgrounds in this community, which is clearly a strength of – if not a precondition for –Wikipedia as a project, poses an additional challenge for building formal organizational structures. While members of Creative Commons‟ epistemic community already shared a set of principled and causal beliefs, notions of validity and a common policy enterprise, the foundation of Wikimedia chapters requires a shift in identity from being a “mere” contributor to commons-based peer production (Benkler 2006) to becoming a (kind of) political activist.35 But it is this “identity shift” that leads people to take over administrative tasks with less intrinsic rewards, which are key for any formal mode of organizing (see also Stegbauer 2009).

This is related to, third, the issue of the affiliate organizations‟ major tasks: whereas porting and maintaining Creative Commons licenses is a clear-cut task with recurring elements such as license versioning, Wikimedia chapters – at least in the beginning – had to find and define their role: the chair of the first Wikimedia chapter in Germany even stated that they only “slowly noticed” what the chapter organization actually was helpful for, aside from fund-raising and managing donations it was founded for (see interview with Kurt Jansson in Dobusch and Forsterleitner 2007: 166). Besides, Wikipedia language projects not only provide a recruiting ground for potential Wikimedia activists but also offer enough possibilities for engagement without becoming a member of any formal organization.

So, harvesting an already transnational network of legal professionals and offering clear-cut tasks for local outposts fostered the development and growth of a transnational organizational network around Creative Commons. However, relying so heavily on a network of legal professionals seemingly also led to some regional bias as this strategy worked best in countries with long tradition and diversity in the field of intellectual property law; consequently, while 5 of 21 Wikimedia chapters (23.8 %) are located in Eastern European countries, only 2 of the first 21 Creative Commons jurisdiction projects (9.5 %) had been so.


Whereas Creative Commons managed to transnationalize more quickly than Wikimedia, it has much more difficulties in organizationally coping with demands for some form of community participation. These difficulties, in turn, lead to a substantial amount of frustration among activists with demobilizing effects, as is evidenced by statements such as the following from a European jurisdiction project lead: “I don‟t feel I have to do with the organization.”

For Wikimedia, community votes and elections have soon become a regular part of its organizational decision making procedures. In the most recent (2009) and so far largest community vote on the proposal to re-license Wikimedia material to make it also available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, 17,462 people cast their votes.37 All contributors who had made at least 25 edits to any Wikimedia project prior to March 15, 2009 were invited to vote. And as has already been mentioned, since the first year after its foundation Wikimedia allows its community to elect members of its governing “board of trustees”. In these elections both active and passive right to vote depend on slightly different criteria as more than 400 edits three months prior to the respective election are required to participate. Around 3,000 contributors participate every year in these elections.

While being obviously arbitrary, the decision to draw community boundaries at certain numbers of “edits” is explicit and transparent. Seemingly, this possibility to clearly define boundaries is a precondition for effective and relatively uncontested community participation in formal organizational decision-making.

Within Creative Commons, on the contrary, defining community boundaries is a problem: While being very successful in porting its alternative copyright licenses into other jurisdictions and in bonding with local “affiliate organizations”, its attempt of organizing community participation within the framework of the separate organization “iCommons” has not been successful. Lacking better criteria for identifying members of the “Creative Commons community”, people were invited to register as “nodes” at the iCommons webpage; thereby, new nodes had to be approved by already existing ones. However, only very few people followed this relatively bureaucratic procedure – especially, as the role and benefits of being a “node” remained unclear. As a consequence, granting voting rights to nodes in formal decision-making procedures was discussed but never implemented. Even more, also heavy users and activists in Creative Commons jurisdiction projects had severe difficulties in differentiating Creative Commons – the organization responsible for developing the set of copyright licenses – from iCommons, which was meant to function as an organizational framework for diverse communities of license users. A project lead of a small European country put it bluntly: “I don‟t understand this distinction myself. […] I really don‟t care about that.”

While drawing boundaries of Creative Commons communities is unlikely to become easier in the future, the difference with regard to representation of local jurisdiction projects and chapter organizations is indeed puzzling: although Creative Commons recognizes more than twice as many jurisdiction projects (49) than Wikimedia has chapters, it has not established any formal participation of its affiliate organization in its formal decision-making processes similar to the chapter-selected seats in the Wikimedia Foundation board, yet.

Comparing the development of the organizational development of Creative Commons and Wikimedia over time (see Figure 8) shows similarities in direction but differences in paths. In the Wikimedia case, increasing participation predates organizational transnationalization and thus decentralization. Hence, the preference for integrating community members within the organization, as evidenced by applying a grass-roots approach for its local chapter organizations and granting them representation rights in 2008, appears a consistent strategy in managing its community relations. Creative Commons, in turn, started its transnationalization as a legal-technical process and encountered a growing activist component with demands for participation as a challenge during this process.

One possible theoretical explanation for this difference in formal participation procedures between Creative Commons and Wikimedia might be “imprinting” (Stinchcombe 1965) of the originally “technical” role fulfilled by the former as a kind of “legal service provider”. Wikimedia, in contrast, was founded not least to provide a credible and legitimate platform for the community‟s collective efforts. The growing number of non-legal affiliate organizations together with the simultaneous withdrawal of legal experts might however increase the pressure on Creative Commons, to change its role and its community relations into more “political” ones. The reported complaints by leaders of several jurisdiction projects regarding democratic deficits and lack of transparency within Creative Commons point into this direction." (


"The status of the franchise networks‟ digital communities as “born globals” and their potential for rapid growth made design and management of their complementary formal carrier-organizations particularly challenging a task: not only did they have to cope with (static) heterogeneity of transnationally dispersed community members but they also had to account for qualitative changes that followed from quantitative community growth (see also Shirky 2008). At least in the two cases under study, the organization-community-relationships could be characterized as „dialectical‟ insofar as the very success of such a relationship was the cause for a subsequent crisis.

The current focus on the informal structuring (digital) communities in the literature not only underestimates the importance of adequate formal organizing for sustained community dynamics but also underexposes problems in such organization-community-relationships. The latter becomes even more obvious in a longitudinal perspective, when quantitative and qualitative change within the community questions even the most basic organizational orientations. This makes traditional organizational typologies such as Anheier and Themudo (2005a) and distinctions such as Della Porta and Diani‟s (2006: 145ff.) differentiation between “professional” and “participatory movement organizations” not dispensable but requires putting them in a historical perspective: it may be the very success of an organizational carrier in terms of community growth that creates the necessity for re-defining its self-conception and re-structuring its organizational building blocks.

Hence, at least for volatile and transnational organization-community-relationships, we see a growing necessity for pragmatist notions of “corrigible provisionality” (Sabel 2006: 120) within networked forms of organizing. With regard to the general relationship between organizations and their (community-)environment, this implicates to not only recognize the respective boundaries as precarious but rather to make drawing boundaries a central task strategic management considerations. In this area – strategic management of (drawing) boundaries – we also see both great potential and need for further research." (

Case Studies

  1. Creative Commons - Governance
  2. Wikipedia - Governance


A selection:

  • General:

Demil, Benoît/Xavier Lecocq, 2006: Neither Market nor Hierarchy nor Network: The Emergence of Bazaar Governance. In: Organization Studies, 27, 10, 1447-1466

Hemetsberger, Andrea/Christian Reinhardt (2009): Collective Development in Open-Source Communities: An Activity Theoretical Perspective on Successful Online Collaboration. In: Organization Studies, 30 (9), 987-1008.

Heritiér, Adrienne/Dirk Lehmkuhl, 2008: The Shadow of Hierarchy and New Modes of Governance. In: Journal of Public Policy, 28, 1-17.

O‟Mahoney, Siobhán/Fabrizio Ferraro, 2007: The Emergence of Governance in an Open Source Community. In: Academy of Management Journal, 50 (5), 1079-1106.

Vujovic, Sladjana/John P.Ulhøi, 2006: An Organizational Perspective on Free and Open Source Software Development. In: Jürgen Bitzer/Philipp J.H. Schröder (eds.), The Economics of Open Source Software Development. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 185-205

  • Creative Commons:

Dobusch, Leonhard/Sigrid Quack, 2010: Epistemic Communities and Social Movements: Transnational Dynamics in the Case of Creative Commons. In: Marie-Laure Djelic/Sigrid Quack (Hg.): Transnational Communities: Shaping Global Economic Governance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 226-251.

  • FLOSS communities:

Garzarelli, Giampaolo/Roberto Galoppini, 2003: Capability Coordination in Modular Organization: Voluntary FS/OSS Production and the Case of Debian GNU/Linux. EconWPA: Industrial Organization 0312005.

  • Wikipedia:

Forte, Andrea/Amy Bruckman, 2008: Scaling Consensus: Increasing Decentralization in Wikipedia Governance. In: Proceedings of HICSS, Waikoloa, HI, January 2008

Viégas, Fernanda B./Marten Wattenberg/Matthew M. McKeon, 2007: The Hidden Order of Wikipedia. In: D. Schuler (ed.): Online Communities and Social Computing. Heidelberg: Springer, 445-454.

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