Sustaining a learning community: top down or bottom up?

by Viv on July 16, 2009

At the ELN showcase on 10 July, I chaired a group who wanted to talk about learning communities. Here’s a write up of the typical issues raised and how people suggested approaching them

The top 5 concerns for someone wanting to make an online learning community work were:

  1. How do we get it launched?
  2. How do we facilitate the community so that it’s sustainable?
  3. How do we ensure that the community links to the business strategy?
  4. How can we measure the success of the community/ ROI?
  5. What’s the right balance between top down and bottom up?

In the short time available, it was the last concern on which people wanted to focus and generate insights:

  • It’s easiest if the on-line community replicates an off-line process that is happening already: if you’re looking to get people to change behaviour signficantly, then change management planning and techniques need to be applied- this is likely to throw out the balance between top down and bottom up.
  • It’s next easiest if the on-line community integrates into another business process: e.g. use an on-line community as part of the pre-work for a course to help establish what participants would like from it.
  • A lot depends on the subject: is it something that people are likely to spontaneously contribute about? There was a success story about a community for diabetics where the community shared experiences of living with that condition.
  • Communities are egalitarian, organisations are hierarchical: you should only expect a few postings on a community that addresses technical subject matter e.g.more junior people in an accountancy firm would feel intimidated about expressing opinions about International Financial Reporting Standards and would look to the firm’s technical specialists to lead on this.
  • There is a top down need to manage risk: Who can access the community? Could it form part of a trail used in court? Does a lawyer posting to a community constitute giving a piece of legal advice? Will management be exposed/ ridiculed?
  • Think about how contributors will be recognised: What’s the culture of the organisation like? Is the community an ‘underground movement’ that has sprung up giving the contributors kudos? Are the contributors seen as egomanical oversharers? Does the quality of contributions need to be recognised within the performance management system.
  • Ground rules: does the community need explicit ground rules to be successful? Are moderators required?

Refreshingly, nobody was talking about the technology – we’ve already got to the stage in the innovation curve where the techology is easy and cheap to access – the focus is (as it should be) on the people using the technology and the content they are interacting with.

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