This blog is often a space to discuss ideas, to reflect on different aspects of learning. Today, i want to be a little more practical. I want to think about a practical exercise for generating a social learning community. Many learning spaces are being created and then languishing, unused and unloved. This is just one idea for how you can reach out and draw people in, generating momentum in the group. Let’s use a case study, to create a social learning experience around ‘leadership’. The approach we will follow will run through three stages.
Firstly, we need to create a structured, time bound, framework for the learning. This is the structure that the conversation will take place in and will be based around a series of questions and short articles. Secondly, we need to recruit and equip our facilitators and thirdly we need to build a narrative and legacy out of the activity.
The point of the structure is to allow us to measure our progress, give sight of the finishing line and to drive up engagement: time bound exercises and opportunities tend to generate higher engagement than open ended ones. In this case, let’s imagine it’s a six week window, running alongside some classroom based training.
For the six weeks, we want to define six questions that can be posted into the forum space (i’m not worrying here about what technology we are using: LinkedIn is as good a space as any as it’s free and easy to access). The questions should follow a pattern, maybe from general definitions through to defining and exploring behaviours and ending up at helping us identify specific skills we need to develop. The questions won’t be posted in isolation: each one will be accompanied by an opinion article, a piece of writing intended to be both provocative and educational.
Imagine our first question is ‘Can you learn leadership from historical figures?’, with the accompanying article exploring some of the usual stereotypical images we see (Churchill, Lincoln etc). In our accompanying article, we may explore why these images are used and how we imagine they will develop leadership through osmosis. The article should be short, maybe three hundred words, and include links to external resources. It should finish on a provocative note.
The facilitators (who we will come on to next) will drive the discussion, whilst next week’s post may move onto something more specific, ‘Great leaders always share written plans’, with the examples covering some business specific examples of change projects. You’d need to put some time into writing the articles that go with the questions, i’d suggest a couple of hours preparation for each post: a not unreasonable time for design.
The facilitators are the people who help develop the conversation, and this is a group who you may work with across multiple projects. I would suggest giving them each a specialism (or, rather, drawing on the specialisms available in your organisation or group), for example, someone with an HR specialism, someone with senior leadership experience, maybe someone from outside the organisation with consultancy experience. The group should be varied.
You should work with this group to discuss how they will interact with learners in two ways: how will they stimulate and provoke debate and how will they reach out to disenfranchised or disengaged learners? These are skills that develop over time, but it’s worth looking at strategies: using open questions, personal emails, even offering telephone coaching on how to phrase your answers and posts.
It’s often also necessary for facilitators to provide feedback in a very timely manner. You want to encourage conversation, so every post needs to be acknowledged and challenged. This should happen fast, so you are unlikely to be able to do it all yourself.
Finally, as the questions open and close over the weeks, you need to narrate the learning from your groups. We’ve talked about narrating learning before and it’s a key skill to draw out the legacy from the exercise. In this case, it’s a communally generated story, so it needs a community generated response. I would suggest trying to pull together a one to two thousand word article out of the posts, giving it a simple narrative thread (‘John said…’ ‘Martha responded…’ etc). Then put it out to the group to edit and revise, even to provide a response to.
In simple terms, these three activities should help you to structure and run a six week social learning exercise in a community of practice. Clearly we could go into much more depth, but the principles i hope are sound.
In summary, we need to create a clear structure for the learning that takes us from general to specific questioning, encouraging learners to move from wide concepts to specific skills development. Secondly, we work with a group of facilitators to challenge and support the group, developing their skills to encourage fast moving conversation and reflection, as well as supporting the disenfranchised. Finally, we build legacy out of the debate, providing a community sourced document that people can take forward with them, with some ownership of.
So there we go, a more practical session than usual, and this is, of course, just one idea: the point of community is that you can challenge and add to this. If this has been a useful exercise, we should try it again. Please do share any of your own learning stories about creating community.