Can you actually build an effective online community? Looking beyond the technology to create true learning environments.

I thought i’d start today with a question that i can’t answer. There are two aspects to this question; what do we mean by ‘community’ and what do we mean by ‘effective’. It’s like when you run a race, you have to know what the finishing line looks like in order to know when you’ve won.

A community is just a defined group of people. They can be defined geographically, as in ‘the English’, or by skills, as in ‘the English speaking community’. Communities can be defined by inclusion, or, indeed, by exclusion. You can be a member of the ‘expat’ community, defined as someone no longer living in England. Whilst a community can be tolerant of difference, there has to be commonality and shared purpose.

Communities have to have a purpose. That purpose can be broad, like ‘survival’, or narrow, like ‘provide a nurturing and supportive environment to discuss coaching’, but they have to have a shared purpose. Indeed, communities like Facebook or LinkedIn have formed like pearls around the grain of sand of a good idea: in both of these cases, it’s enlightened self interest. People want to know what their friends are doing or be able to network for business.

What we mean by ‘effective’ is a different matter, and really just applicable in the pseudo artificial context that we must use when we set out to ‘create’ a new community. Working with a client to create their Community of Practice, we are almost starting the wrong way around. Typically, community will emerge from the reality of situations. Stick a group of people together for long enough, and they will form on, or a number, of distinct groupings, based on needs, wants, desires. It’s hard to flip it around and say that you have a ‘community’ in place, and invite people to join it.

Within a learning context, we sometimes do exactly that. If i want to set up a community of practice and build an online space where people can interact, i’m effectively having to build the village before i have a population to fill it. In fact, in some cases, i’m building a virtual city, but with no residents. And herein lies the greatest potential pitfall. As the builder of any NewTown knows, you can build the houses and shopping malls, but people have to have the desire to move in. You can’t force them. At least, you can’t force them in a western democracy.

This is probably the greatest pitfall that businesses encounter. When trying to set up corporate blogs, forums, communities, discussion areas: they assume that people will want to live there, but in reality, many people already live elsewhere and don’t want to move.

It hits the issue of formal and informal spaces right on the head. Any community that is built by the organisation is formal. It’s a work space. The best conversations often go on down at the pub, or on the beach, not in the shiny new village that you’ve built. The roots of many of these issues lie in corporate desire to ‘own’ spaces. The immediate focus of a business is to ‘create’ the space, to buy some technology, whilst what we should focus on is actually the community activity. The community can live in Twitter, Facebook, or, indeed, down at the pub. The value is in the conversations that take place, not in the architecture.

The most productive thing that can be done within any embryonic learning community is to nurture it. You need to feed in time and emotional energy to shape and challenge it. You can drive engagement through activity. The architecture, the software, is a red herring. You should be focussing efforts on engagement through dialogue and conversation, whatever the forum.

In this context, the answer to the question of ‘can you build an effective community’ is neither yes, nor no. It’s ‘maybe’. If you nurture and protect it, then probably, although you have to realise that it will steer itself and can’t be owned.

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About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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One Response to Can you actually build an effective online community? Looking beyond the technology to create true learning environments.

  1. Ian Inniss says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Julian – A good article, well worth taking the time to read; I’m glad I stopped by!

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