Social Learning happens within and alongside our communities: semi formal spaces where ‘sense making’ activities take place. Agile organisations create the right permissions and environments for these communities to thrive, remembering at every stage that they can nurture them, but not own the conversations. Inherently, Social Learning is a semi formal style.
We can nevertheless put a structure around the formation and management of these communities that may help organisations drive engagement, fulfil their social responsibility to safeguard participants and make them highly effective spaces.
Through a series of articles, i want to explore two of these elements in depth, around two core models: the first covers three stages in the lifecycle of the community, the second explores how and why intervene and moderate what is said. Taken together, it’s a blueprint for the formation, growth and management of a thriving community.
People often ask me about engagement, often spurred by their experiences where they’ve created a space and had little uptake: within this context, we have to understand that engagement in any community is driven by relevance and timeliness. I needed to change the fuse in the Land Rover at the weekend: i googled it and found my way into a specialist Forum. Whilst i didn’t post, i did find the information i needed fast: it was both relevant and timely.
The information i found was posted in 2008. At that time, it was neither relevant nor timely for me. It’s relevance and timeliness that form the foundations of engagement. The right information at the wrong time will be less useful to me. And relevance changes over time as our circumstances evolve: before i owned a Land Rover, i had no interest in changing their fuses.
The technology of the forum space was immaterial: it was the content that counted. Often the projects i hear of that have low engagement fail for common reasons: they focus on technology, not relevance, they have great content that simply isn’t relevant to me right now, they have poor content badly indexed which means i can find better materials elsewhere in a more timely manner. Generally we take the path of least resistance.
With this in mind, consider the three stages in the Lifecycle of a Social Learning Community: ‘guiding‘, ‘forming‘ and ‘narrating‘.
FORMING is about establishing the community: it’s about creating the right permissions and environment. It’s not just about technology, but it certainly does include technology. It’s primarily about setting down the rules of engagement, creating the permissions to engage. Rules are best co-written and co-owned, not imposed from the outside. Sure, there are times when legal or compliance considerations may drive the decisions, but questions around etiquette, privacy and permanence can easily be co-written with the community itself.
It’s crucial to get this stuff right: the wrong permissions may lead to the wrong type of engagement. One client proudly described to me how they had over a hundred thousand comments and posts on their system and nobody had ever said anything faintly contentious or challenging. For me, this was a failure: it simply indicated a community afraid to question or challenge. The critical conversations were, of course, still happening, but they were happening elsewhere, outside the earshot of the organisation.
Questions around engagement and permanence are important: we may agree a rule of ‘use no real customer data’ within a forum space, but have we agreed what can happen with the conversation itself? How would you feel if you have a debate in this social learning space, but three months later a print out of that conversation is used in your annual performance review to illustrate your lack of understanding of a key principle. If these are learning spaces, which they truly are, we have to be clear where our spaces are to make mistakes, the permanence of those mistakes and our permission to learn.
In the early days, we need to establish roles: these are typically far more fluid in social learning spaces than they are in physical and hierarchical communities. Roles are more contextual in these spaces: you may lead today, bring subject matter expertise tomorrow and provide support the day after.
It’s also important to agree a shared purpose: this is a foundational principle of communities. They share values and purpose, even if that purpose is simply curiosity. These are Social Learning spaces: neither purely social, nor fully formal learning. They encompass both, but do so in a semi structured manner. As such, they form shared purpose: enquiry around a particular subject or area, a desire to learn. Understanding what our shared purpose it can lead to all sorts of other decisions around technology, moderation, style and so forth. Is ours a community of enquiry, problem solving or sharing?
Whilst we are in the formation stage, we have to actively reach out: it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of who is engaged to miss those people who aren’t. And we mustn’t assume we know the reasons for disengagement: it may not be about technology or competence. It may be that people find the conversation irrelevant or relevant but at the wrong time. It may be that they are already solving these problems in other community spaces or by other means. It may be that they feel disenfranchised through dyslexia, through culture, through gender, through sexual preference, through being part time, through lack of confidence or through any one of a million other reasons. If we don’t reach out, we’ll never know.
In the early days, we are also trying to establish our community tone of voice: this is about how formal or social the space is. It’s partly determined by the purpose of the community and partly by the rules within it. It’s definitely influenced by moderation style and approach. Our tone of voice may be authoritarian, didactic or collaborative. Whatever we want it to be, it’s best to be clear about it, and it’s ok to flex it over time or between different parts of the community to find a balance. The most successful organisations utilise different social learning and collaboration spaces in different ways, with different styles and tones of voice: some fully formal, other much less so. It’s like the real world that surrounds us: some spaces, like offices, are fully formal. Others are purely social, but many fall increasingly in between.
Finally, we need to reflect on our stance for engagement (which we’ll explore in more detail later around ‘moderation‘). Consider what the purpose of the community is: if it’s a ‘sense making‘ entity, we need to provide permissions and spaces to make mistakes. If it’s about compliance, we need to ensure the integrity of the story.
In many cases, communities are self sustaining: they really don’t need much more than a permissive environment and clear rules. At other times, our stance for intervention will be clear: perhaps to ensure fairness and integrity or to help narrate the learning. In any event, don’t let your stance be accidental. It’s a conscious choice that impacts the effectiveness and culture of the community.