How Leaders Emerge in Online Communities - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #470

How Leaders Emerge in Online Communities

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Without a formal hierarchy, members of online communities are often able to work together effectively and efficiently collaborating to create vast founts of knowledge such as Wikipedia. This research looks at how leaders emerge in online communities, and what companies can learn from this. 


Online communities can be the source of staggering feats of pooled knowledge creation, with volunteers from around the world combining their expertise. Think of Wikipedia, or of Linux, or even the online community helping NASA to map craters on Mars.

“Open-source software development creates products that are as good (some say, even better) as those created by traditional software companies with tens of thousands of employees,” says HEC Paris’ Associate Professor Sri Kudaravalli, co-author of a new study examines how leadership emerges in online communities.

How do online communities, with members dispersed around the globe, work so successfully without formal control structures? While traditional organizations rely on hierarchy and other control mechanisms, online communities are loosely coordinated, self-organizing, and voluntary. Some observers have labelled online communities “leaderless organizations.”

The researchers’ findings indicate that leaders in online communities are mainly determined by task-based behaviours. They contribute knowledge and answer questions. Duration of membership and participation were positively associated with being identified as a leader, but number of questions asked had a negative association, indicating that leaders are more likely to provide answers than pose questions.

The researchers also rated postings for frequency of sign-offs, thanks, and personal anecdotes — signs of ‘sociability’ — and found that sociability was less significant than knowledge contribution – in distinguishing leadership status. It would however be wrong to conclude that sociability is unimportant in all online communities, just that it is not as important as knowledge contribution in the communities studied (which were technical/programming communities). In technical forums there are often correct and incorrect answers to questions. And therefore perhaps less value in sociability.

In a traditional bricks-and-mortar organization, members in key positions can draw information from unconnected groups and trade off on it – in a form of ‘social capital’ (where resources are accessed by virtue of relational ties). The researchers wondered whether a similar advantage could be gained online. After all, in the context of knowledge collaboration, information is key, and someone who ‘bridges’ unconnected parts of a network benefits from arbitrage opportunities. The researchers did indeed find that social capital was strongly associated with leadership.

However, there is no way to tell, based on this study, whether the members identified as leaders achieved their structural position because of their leadership qualities, or vice versa — if they developed their leadership qualities as a result of their structural social capital. The researchers found a strong interaction effect: the likelihood of a central participant being identified as a leader was greater if they also engaged in knowledge contribution and sociable behaviour. They also found that leadership is a lot more concentrated than expected: out of nearly 1,000 participants in the study, only 42 were identified as leaders, while fewer still (8), were nominated 9 or more times.


Many companies are now seeking to leverage online networks to develop their own products and services. In 2013, for example, the market research company Forrester reported a 25% increase in the usage of online communities dedicated to customer service over the past three years.

This research is useful in pointing to several approaches that can be adopted to build leadership within such communities. The researchers found, for example, that beyond communication network position–in terms of formal role – those viewed as leaders by other participants, post a large number of positive, concise posts with simple language familiar to other participants.



This Idea is based on an interview with Sri Kudaravalli and the article “Leading Knowledge Collaboration in Online Communities” written in collaboration with Samer Faraj and Molly Wasko (forthcoming in MIS Quarterly).

Emergence of Power Laws in Online Communities: The Role of Social Mechanisms and Preferential Attachment. Steven L. Johnson, Samer Faraj & Srinivas Kudaravalli. MIS Quarterly (November 2014).

How Leader Emerge in Online Communities. Sri Kudaravalli. Knowledge@HEC (12th November 2014). 

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Idea conceived

January 8, 2015

Idea posted

Jan 2015
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