Thursday, 10 January 2013


Happy New Year and thank you to all who take the time to read my thoughts - I appreciate it!

At the close of a year one wonders what will be the buzz of the new one.  As I write this my inbox is still bombarded by predictions for 2013 and the Twitter chat rooms are waking their communities up gently with sessions about aspirations, challenges, plans and the like.  But already one thing is clear to me from the increasingly back to normal volume of posts on my screen – the word for 2013 is TRUST.

Frances Ferguson uses a quote from JM Barrie to title her post on the subject

“ All the world is made of faith and trust and pixie dust”

She says:

“It is never enough to assume that people will change just because we ask them to. The route to success is to create the environment where the beliefs of our audience shift, so they know that this new way of doing things is right and, more importantly, they know why too.

Very true in the old order where the trainer had the opportunity to work with the learner to help them open their mind to the possibility of doing things differently.  That was core to the old push model.  But the world has changed – we now live in a pull society where the learner first has to recognise for themselves the need to change. He or she then has the daunting task of finding a place to do it in which they feel safe – somewhere they trust in order to make themselves vulnerable as they explore new approaches, experiment with new skills, even offer their own views for review by others they may not even know. That is a scary prospect and one that has ample opportunity for hurt and disillusionment.

Maria van Vlodrop, writing in the Training Journal, refers back to TIME magazine’s interview with Mark Zuckerberg in 2007 in which “authenticity” was a key feature.

But we live in a world of big data - and just how does the workforce glean golden nuggets within a galaxy of information? What is valid, what is not? What is authentic, what is not? Whose information do you trust - and why?
My view is that successful collaboration is based on real relationships where people communicate naturally, trust each other - and where authenticity is the secret of success, just as Mark Zuckerberg said. And here I see L&D extending its current responsibilities to foster relationships, build profiles and create a pool of truly trusted people across company disciplines from sales, to operations, to distribution, to production to deliver authentic information.
Nurturing authenticity will be one new string to the L&D bow. Shaping judgement will be a second. While L&D becomes the curator and filter of knowledge drawn from inside the enterprise and beyond; creator of circles of trust, and champion of active collaboration, at the end of the day, people will need to use their own judgement on what information to use. How will L&D encourage a good judgement skill-set? My view is that we can ensure that knowledge is available in the right context from a trusted source.”
In the last post I wrote in my 2011 series about developing successful online communities and virtual teams I emphasised the need for care to be taken in what we write in order to recognise the potential recipient – their feelings, insecurities, capacity to accept feedback etc. 
Over the past year I have been involved in various direct and indirect ways with a number of activities that have required some sensitivity in drawing together people from very different cultures, disciplines, levels of comfort with the technologies.  There have been moments where tension and difficulties have arisen, mostly innocently, as a result of a lack of care for how information is received. People have on occasion felt insecure, even hurt by what has been said and not said. Much work has been needed to ensure those communities develop into and remain safe places for people to collaborate, share and learn.
So, back to Maria:
A ...... string (for 2013) will be to sharpen people's writing skills - the ability to communicate clearly and convincingly online is wide open to criticism. Everyone is a critic and can read and judge performance online daily, good or bad. People are realising that they have to be 'on' all of the time.  It's a brand new communications world and L&D can play an important role in developing these skills.”
Yes, communication in our connected world is a new paradigm. Short, instant, with a very limited vocabulary, little regard to established grammatical forms – it is fraught with the opportunity for miscommunication, misunderstanding, misinterpretation and hurt.  The written word has always been, and will always be, a minefield for personal relationships. Yes, we can develop new written skills for the new order but we will still fail in creating the environment for “pull” learning if we cannot make people feel safe.
Many of us are experimenting with media and platforms to find ways to harness the power of technology to aid, encourage and enhance personal learning. We live in a time where the means of communication have expanded exponentially. Great.  We are engaged in exploring the seemingly endless list of possibilities.  I believe there is a dawning realisation that it is not about having to be everywhere because suddenly we do not all have to be in the same place – and therefore the only way we can keep up is by being where everyone else is.  Instead I believe we are beginning to re-assert our critical minds away from blindly rushing into new environments into working out what we need, where it is going to come from, and which are the most appropriate tools for accessing it. If we achieve that we will have done much to recognise our humanity and individuality in the face of the information and technology tsunami that is so scary to so many people.
2013 for me? Using less to do more.  Thinking more critically than I have done previously about the vehicles and environments in which I engage to achieve particular ends. Working where I can trust and feel trusted. Always pursuing new insight into how to help people discover and realise their potential – by trying things out even when I feel at some personal risk by doing so. But always I hope in what I say and do with a focus on how it will assist others – I may fail but  my intent out of my lifelong passion for learning will be to experience to find new ways to learn that are safe and have depth.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Hello from Las Vegas where I am really looking forward to DevLearn which gets underway today. My first visit to The Strip - and for those of you who have never been here it is quite some place!

It's high time I returned to my series of posts about the Leadership of Communities. Thank you to all who have read, commented upon and passed on the previous posts about the context and the group nature of communities.

I want now to focus on an aspect of community we tend to forget. Our technology is a very levelling medium in one sense. We can't see or hear one another. We don't have to react to the full range of our sense in our community interactions - so it's easy isn't it? Just blaze away and it will be OK!

Wrong!! Every address we encounter online belongs to a warm human being who has their own feelings and their own needs - just like you and me!

Do we ever stop to consider how the person behind the address is feeling about interacting with us? I am a techno idiot. I go into blind panic when exhorted in a community to "just drag it into Dropbox and then upload it onto Slideshare and post it in your Facebook group as well". I have progressed - far beyond where I ever thought I would be capable, but only because some of my new found colleagues in the internet space have had the sensitivity to understand I needed help and the willingness and patience to provide it. I am not untypical in my spread of competences and levels of comfort.

So in our communities there will be a real mix. The expert, active in the technology for years, right through to the person taking their very first step into what will appear a very daunting and overwhelming world. In our leadership and support of communities we have to remember and take account of this breadth of experience, confidence and ability. People need to be welcomed as individuals, their needs listened to and then actively supported.

We need also to remember that competence in one area of our field does not necessarily mean competence in all of it. Just because I can drive an automatic does not mean I can handle a manual or a sports car. Someone who is good on one platform may be completely at sea on another. I meet numbers of people who are adept at Facebook (where I am almost totally ignorant) but scared of Twitter - which I find pretty easy. But take that same Facebook expert and ask them to handle a hardware configuration problem to enable access to some new platform and they may be completely lost.

I am passionate about learning! Its possibilities as a key business tool, its potential to reach billions of people through mobile technology, its platforms progressively transforming our lives and I can comment with some authority on these topics. But ask me about the mechanics of rapid content development or the problems of different operating systems in mobile devices and I will give you a totally blank stare.

I wrote recently about the proliferation of platforms and how many is enough. Jane Hart has done something similar and much more eloquently than me ( ). I have a suite that I find useful and which meet my needs and I am not going to confuse myself and spend time unnecessarily on "pioneer" exploration of other platforms. I have little interest in that kind of stuff so when you talk to me about it I will have both a level of incompetence and also a lack of motivation.

What I will comment on is how platforms of different kinds can be used to support, enhance and enable the learning activity of the Smart Worker. In fact I can probably be just as boring to you on that topic as the Instructional Design specialist can be to me in their field.

What I am trying to convey here is the multiple levels of comfort and interest that are involved in all but the narrowest of the online communities in which we are involved.

Now we need to look at some other dimensions of the "individual" stakeholder in our communities. What devices do they have? What access is available to them- and who is paying for it? In our 24/7 world of on demand and "just in time" learning, what are the constraints that limit the freedom of universal access. I mean the attitudes of our work situation and those around us to using technology enabled learning, I am aware that in developing community expectations people will have different levels of interest and commitment to the community and the whole concept. There will be family constraints as people seek to balance the invasive dimensions of working with 24/7 access with the demands of parenting, social interaction in the real live community and so on.

And now, hot from the press, comes Clark Quinns great insight into the complexities of the levels of learning with which we all have to deal (

It is so much more complicated now than it used to be in the bad old face to face days when everything stopped at the moment the lecturer went home. But the power, the potential and the excitement of our modern learning far outweighs those difficulties so long as we take care to take into account that every address has someone behind it just like us - a human being who needs to be made comfortable and requires support to contribute to the synergy that should be part of our communities.

Looking forward to meeting and speaking formally to those of you at DevLearn please say Hi! when we walk past each other!

Monday, 24 October 2011


Back in the summer I posted a light-hearted series of articles inspired by Susan’s and my many happy days in the African bush during the long part of our lives we lived in South Africa.  The series is not yet complete…… 

With apologies to my good friends, the vendors and some consultants in the e-learning industry!

They look like something from the dinosaur era.  They are largely solitary or at most associating in small family groups.  They have only the elephant as a natural enemy.  Their horn is erroneously highly valued as an aphrodisiac, which means they are highly prized and sought after by hunters. Saner mortals get incredibly excited when they see one. The black rhino is dangerous because it is short-sighted  – easily provoked and very aggressive. Its white cousin is bigger, more benign, but just as capable of causing incredible mayhem and damage. They are thick-skinned.  And in species survival terms, they are successful. 

I am not an expert, but I have sat for many hours watching them.  What do I recall? 

·         They certainly don’t normally do it – communities that is for they mostly walk alone

·         They aren’t a peer species – a strict hierarchy is evident on those few occasions where groups are together. And there is little that is more awe-inspiring than to see an adult bull rhino on the charge after a cow who has in some way broken the rules

·         They are fiercely territorial – and will kill intruders of their own rare species to defend territory

·         Their learning is very directed, with mothers taking great, protective care to teach and shield their babies

·         The learning curve is long – the young stay with their mothers for years before venturing away on their own

·         They do things the same way they have for all those millions of years – at least that is what it appears on the outside

·         They don’t seem to take much notice of what is happening around them – why should they?  They survive well and, poachers apart, have few threats to their well-being

·         They have for millions of years been on an evolutionary route to nowhere – but somehow they survive – perhaps because of their great size

·         In the face of poaching, the conservators who love them have gathered round to protect them and ensure their survival – driven on by fear of the potential horror of a world without them 

So why did I mention my friends, the vendors and some consultants in e-learning? 

In a world in which change is happening fast – as it is in the battle for survival that all wild-life has– I see many vendors exhibiting some rhino-like characteristics. 

The basic need to survive in business seems for many to obscure the fact that the world around them is changing – and moving away from what was once their security. 

No longer does the world at large want courses whether online, or face to face, bespoke or generic as it is increasingly influenced by the social media driven shift towards individuality, self-learning, experiential discovery and a regaining of the power of conversation in community.  But many are still rushing headlong down the rapids to find ever quicker ways of cooking up a new dish to satisfy eager managerial mouths seduced into thinking that “training will fix the problem”. 

Gone are the days of command and control when L&D could dictate a syllabus or curriculum to line, aided by weak senior authorisation that failed to see the hazards of the “mandatory” training  intervention. Business leaders now look at the value add and the costs of L&D – and the evidence of their conclusions is clear in the declining budgets that are repeatedly and depressingly reported.  

Business is too fast and too focused now on changing to survive to have time for obsessive recording and measuring of everything that moves and changes, so the LMS is waning.  But many of its suppliers cling on – adding clever desktops and other functionality (that rightfully belong with the IT department and with business processes) – in a bid to extend their existence. 

Hierarchical and autocratic control is challenged everywhere in our lives, at work, at home and in the wider national and world environments in which we live.  Networked, information driven, collaborative and at the same time individual, we have moved as a global society that does not want prescription, one size fits all solutions, or above all being told what is good for it in the way people learn as they live and work.  The world has become a global social learning environment in which informality, mutuality and collaboration are the energising concepts. 

The vendor community (with its consultants) is rightly admired and respected by its clients for its past assistance and current ability to create ever more clever products.  Why then does it seem to try now to hold back the tsunami of change to an informal, collaborative, networked, more individually directed culture that is sweeping through our world, fuelled by the very tools and platforms that built the industry?  To hear of a vendor telling a client that “it is too soon to engage in social learning, we will help you with that transition over a 5 year period” is about as savvie as Canute sitting on the seashore and daring the waves to come in! 

The hi-jacking and distortion of words and concepts – and their reinterpretation in forms developed out of an inward self-preservation interest – performs no service of trust to those clients for whom the vendors vie so territorially and aggressively.  Trying to stifle insight about the implications of global sociological shift and to shield clients on whom the industry depend from understanding the change is a kind of censorship and misinformation that in our modern investigative society will soon be seen to be hollow.  It will be swept away like the debris of those terrible waves. There needs to be an understanding that it is not just from the viewpoint of L&D that the SoMe tsunami can be seen – other business functions are also aware of it! 

Just as the in-company L&D professional has to recognise the giant wave of the communication revolution, and to work with the line to interpret it and help employees use it to business advantage, so too the vendor industry and its consultants have a duty to do the same for the hand that feeds them.  Those that do will survive.  Those that look inward and persist in building self-preservation strategies will surely go the way of all businesses that fail to understand and adapt to their changing environment. 

The rhino survives, just, but plods its own singular path seemingly oblivious to what is happening around it.  Our modern world and the world of learning is one that calls for rapid adaptation, change and collaboration.  It is one in which survival for client and vendor alike will depend on facing the facts of the changing landscape honestly and collaboratively. 

We must all work together to ensure we discharge our common duty – to help every individual to learn to the best of their ability and to fulfil their life potential.

Monday, 17 October 2011


During the two weeks I’ve been quiet on this blog I’ve had a chance to take stock of where those of us in the Working Smarter and social learning space are positioned. There have been some superb conversations, especially last week’s #realwplearn on the subject of online communities and how they can be supported.  The discussion lasting a whole hour had not one mention of courses, structure or measurement!  The folks in the #chat really got stuck into understanding what communities are, their role in the workplace and what is needed for them to succeed. 

"Community" is becoming a buzz word and we need to be careful that, like so many other terms, it is not corrupted to acquire a compromised understanding that is at variance with the real meaning of the word. Vested interests have a track record of hi-jacking words, often blocking the way to insight and change. 

Vlatka Hlupic writing in “Leadership”  ( says The need for a new mindset and leadership skills has never been more urgent, but translating it into action remains a challenge for many…… I see evidence pointing to a community-based, collaborative approach where leaders eschew formal power, delegate responsibilities rather than tasks, relax their control and empower employees to make decisions on the basis of their knowledge, skills and experience rather than on their formal position in the organisational hierarchy. 

In response to a thread in the Social Learning Community I wrote: 

“L&D in most organisations faces a huge task to regain its rightful place at the table as a key resource towards performance improvement. To do so it must be characterised by a sensitive supportive culture, offering assistance based in understanding of the organisation and its people needs. Anything prescriptive will not work and will be washed away in the tsunami that is the social media revolution - which L&D does not own and in which it needs to recognise it has to fight for its own survival.” ( 

The point is that the operational side of our organisations is waking up to the need for change, driven by economics and in some cases by dawning of the power of the wirearchy and collaborative connection to create business improvement.  In some places L&D has woken up to the same thing and is working hard to establish for itself a place to stand in support of those new ways of working.  What L&D has to be careful of is sliding back into its all too frequent mindset of trying to tell the business what is good for it. L&D’s insight is great, but any insight is frequently more powerful to the one who has it than to those to whom it is subsequently exposed! 

L&D has to have a genuine change of culture, and mindset, something that is far removed from anything associated with tell, structure or direct.  Memories are long and people are adept at detecting a wolf in sheep’s clothing!  Vlata again, in the same post ……. it is important that organisations change their culture on a sustainable basis. To do that, they must change their mindset and distribute authority and decision making on the basis of knowledge and skills rather than on formal position in the organisational hierarchy.
They also need to support self-organisation in informal networks and communities of interests, encourage collaboration, knowledge sharing and experimentation with ideas. Last but not least, developing a caring culture based on trust and transparency is also an important part of this strategy, which can make a significant impact on staff engagement, productivity and overall performance of an organisation.”
How well put! I referred earlier to the tsunami that is the Social Media revolution.  Embracing the tools, seeing their potential for helping people learn, being able to devise new super-smart, sophisticated learning aids such as the emergent “Virtual Experiential Manipulations” talked about by Steve Wheeler, are all great.  Becoming Learning Champions who take the time and trouble to lock the office door and get out into the business and understand it in order to be able, and earn the right, to suggest ways of solving problems that come from the L&D environment is all very well. 
If our behaviour and the language we use is not in keeping with the new world that Vlata describes and which others like the Internet Time Alliance are trying to interpret for us, then L&D will indeed be swept away, identified as non value-adding and irrelevant to a modern world.
Our new world has choices about how organisations and individuals learn – and the L&D function is only one of them!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


"Learning is what each of us as living, breathing, thinking human being does on our own, sometimes with the assistance of another, every day, all day, and without design unless it's of our own. If we're encouraging people to think differently, with a new mindset, and breaking things along the way, I hope we can also work on breaking the notion we can develop learning for other people. It's as silly of an idea as designing or developing breathing for other people." Marcia Conner responding to a post on Jane Hart's blog ( ) 

So Ill continue my series about how to lead online learning communities by asking the question Where do they need to go? because leadership implies a destination or if you like a vision, a goal, an endpoint to be strived for. 

The answer may be short-term and very concrete.  Something about achieving a particular level of personal and collective performance in a defined area by a particular date.  It may be a much longer and more loosely described intention, such as that frequently attached to leadership development initiatives creating a cohort able to lead the company into a new culture supportive of business strategy. Maybe it's a Learning Community that will ultimately at some unspecified date become a Community of Practice. 

Whatever the degree of specificity or vagueness associated with the online community, there must always be an element of change involved as a result of its activities, otherwise the community is pointless.  If new awareness, skill, or performance capability is acquired, change will follow. Change theory tells us that however we identify the dimensions of change, if one alters, they all alter. Organisations are made up of people working to a goal within a set of norms, rules and processes. They consist of skills, attitudes and values, individually owned, but expressed within the community that is the organisation. 

When something happens a learning community forms and begins to express itself in the application of new behaviours change occurs in the organisation.  In my last post I encouraged analysis of the kinds of community that may typically be found in order to determine the nature of the leadership needed to optimise the chances of success from the pserspective of the make-up of that community. 

In parallel, online communities will only initiate successfully, grow and embed in the organisation if they are set up in a way that will enable them to explore their learning task, and to consolidate and apply their discoveries in an environment that is receptive and supportive. So leadership of an online community needs to pay attention to the cultural, structural and governance ecology that surrounds it and the opportunities its work and learning creates.  It is a rare community that succeeds without regard to the constraints that are around it even if that regard is simply to take note and to challenge on the basis of learning gained.  

So where are we up to now in our exploration of leadership in relationship to online communities?  

We have established that the make-up of the community and its goal are important to understanding its leadership needs. We have also now looked at the fact that change will happen as result of the existence of an active online community. That change needs to be anticipated and planned for in order to optimise the chances of the community succeeding, to minimise disruption to the workflow as a result of the communities and its members' work, and to avoid unintentional negative consequences of the community's work. 

Where does the quote from Marcia Conner fit? What Marcia is saying is that to try to impose leadership on a community or any individual within it is to deny what learning is about. As L&D professionals what we can do as enabling business partners is, either by our own actions or by stimulating others to take the necessary action, to assist in the creation of an environment internal to the community and in its surrounding ecology that enables people to learn in their optimal way. To suggest that we can do more is to deny the learning process and to constrain the choices we each have a right to make. 

Andrew Jacobs asked me in #lrnchat last week if the L&D professional had any part in advising a line manager when a weakness in a business process was noticed. He alluded to the fact that our role is as business people with a particular expertise – that of understanding learning and how people may be helped to optimize their potential. Spotting the need for change, engaging in social learning with line to explore that perception and helping plan action to enable it to happen, and then working with a learning community to express itself and the individuals skills in the changing environment is surely what we are about. 

Considering the leadership needs and how they should be met for a learning community means taking into account both its internal and external needs. We are then in a position to look at what leadership action to stimulate (or from an L&D perspective we can take personal responsibility) in order to move that community forward. One aspect of planning for starting an online community is to include plans to ensure it will have an environment in which it can thrive supportive management, committed SMEs available to provide assistance, a clear purpose and process understood by all in the environment etc. 

Leadership in a learning community does not always rest with the senior person, the most knowledgeable, the one with the most experience, or even the most noisy or energetic.  It rests with whoever sees what needs to be done and is able to carry the group forward.  Frequently as a community develops and matures the leadership will move between individuals. In L&D we can be observers of those dynamics and be in a position to offer the gentle hand. 

We will look at the options for action and the ways in which they may be applied in the next posts in this series. 

1.   Understanding the community we are leading

2.   Understanding the environment in which your learning community is positioned

3 (Next) Understanding the leadership needs of individuals in online learning communities

Friday, 23 September 2011


Leadership of an online community uses the same principles as that of any community in any situation.  I have talked about the behaviours needed for successful communities in some of my previous posts.  They are concerned with respect for the individual, understanding each other’s humanity and with listening as well as providing input. 

That’s all very well but how do we apply those principles in the various communities in which we are involved?  There has been a huge positive response to my post about keeping away from any idea of “managing” an online learning community.  There is a recognition amongst readers that community leadership is a more appropriate concept.  There is also a recognition of the concept I described that is about “all member” leadership. 

This tells me that as a network of professionals looking for ways of helping learning communities establish, grow and gain an on-going longevity as Communities of Practice, we are interested in some ideas for how to achieve that goal. 

As a first step let’s look at the structures and organisation of online communities in which we can be involved.   

·         Public and open
·         Public but with restricted access
·         Private with invited membership
·         Private (as in restricted to an organisation or interest group) but open through invitation or application
·         Subscription
·         Network on a Social Media platform (public or private)
·         Community or group created within a platform (public or private) 

The list can go on. 

Each of these types of online learning environment has particular needs in its leadership – and all are different. I wrote about them generically in a previous post.   

The technology employed in communities adds another dimension.  Blogs, wikis and other platforms where the post can be substantial are quite different from Twitter, limited to 140 characters.  Platforms where the contribution is threaded and where content is permanent differ from those where each post is discrete and may be transient. There may well be a need for a different kind of leadership dependent on the nature of the platform.

A third dimension is the demography of the members of the community.  A global public community focussed on asking questions, sharing of experience and injection of ideas is quite different from a tightly knit community of SME’s learning together around an intractable technical issue. A Facebook community of young women sharing their experience of selling cosmetics requires a different kind of leadership from a private group of middle-aged medical consultants working together to devise a treatment plan for a complex clinical situation. All of these are learning communities. Each requires a different style, different leadership and has a different culture. 

So, a first step in the exploration of how to promote effective leadership in our online communities is to analyse the kind of community with which we are involved. 

I addition to the dimensions I have listed, think through the purpose of the community – early learning, pursuing learning in depth, community of practice, collaborative sharing of experience, developing a new concept for sales or research, achieving tight project driven timelines?  

What is the timeline of the community?  Short term to prepare a group for a more formal process, interim to support a longer project or learning programme. Or long term to address an intractable problem and use the community to share experience, solve immediate problems, identify issues, experiment and share findings.  Maybe the timeline has no end – the group being in existence to act as the corporate custodians of its knowledge in a key business area. 

Is the group a fixed membership, such as to support a course or a project?  Is membership open to encourage others to get involved in a topic of interest? Will people come and go within the community in either the short term or the long term? 

Is the group heterogeneous or is it mostly people who are similar in age, background, experience, language, seniority?  The community will have different leadership needs if it is for example a multi-disciplinary team of varying ages, spread across functions, operating divisions, even countries of operation. 

What is the company culture like?  Trying to run a totally peer driven community when the company culture and even the professional discipline are highly hierarchical may be problematic.  The intention of the community, on the other hand, may be to be a part of the process of levelling the playing field of the workplace to align it with the networked world in which we now live. 

All of these considerations are important in deciding exactly how to offer and to foster leadership in online communities. In coming posts I will look at some practical models of leadership and apply them to some of the kinds of community I have identified here. 

I hope this short introductory post stimulates some thinking about what our communities are about, their leadership needs, the likely routes to success – and most of all, the contribution that we can make to ensuring their success in our roles as professional business support people working in L&D

Monday, 19 September 2011


In this first of a series of posts about what leadership of online communities means, I want to explore the contextual aspects of our actions in supporting them. 

Austen Hunter in the Social learning Community ( ) asks “... if you understand the broad principles, context and “why”* social learning is important what are the practical steps to making the change in your org?"  

Jane Hart replied “It's not a matter of "implementing" change - but encouraging people to get involved in groups - talking and sharing - and then the change will happen itself. From Command and Control to Encourage and Engage . In other words trying to implement "social" top down just won't work.” ( ) .  Approaches such as that suggested recently by Tammara Combs ( ) will rapidly be seen as attempts to manipulate. They are an anathema to the spirit of open collaboration that is well established in the social learning workplace.

In this, the first of a series of posts that will be concerned with the “gentle hand” of leadership (Harold Jarche) in communities, I want to start with looking at the place online communities have in an organisation.  

What happens in an online community that is working well?. Someone asks a question based on a real need in the workplace. Others engage either out of experience or because they have a similar need out of their workflow or out of interest in the topic. So what happens is the creation of a group within the community. It may be totalyy informal or it may get a name.  Others will join in, either because they are invited or because they are interested. It will always be transient, because people will make their contribution and will eventually leave the topic because this engagement has given all it can. The only question is the timeframe – a few hours to maybe many months. However for a time it is very real and will provide ideas and the opportunity to crystallise peoples thinking around the topic and to move work ahead. It may lead members or the whole group off in a new direction of thought and action. 

When the Social Learning Community (SLC) started with a rush I conducted an analysis of what happened to capture the principles and practices that lay behind the immediate success ( ). The start-up of this community was very fast and for a period extremely busy. Communities can't always be the way this one was for its first couple of months. They have to do what has happened now in the SLC They have to settle down into being a place where people feel free to engage with others across all kinds of boundaries to ask questions, seek help, offer insight, invite critique etc. Jane has alluded to the fact that one day the community might have passed its “use by” date and life will move on.

For the moment, members asking questions, creating threads and offering insights are stimulating a lot of thought and contribution. 

Compare that situation to another Yammer community which I am currently advising. It has had explosive initial sign-up which is great. But now what? The initiators have watched a small number of people amongst the 4000 who have joined it over a 3 month period have recognised that it provides an opportunity for open communication which will support the workflow. About 20 groups have been created by people in the community to support aspects of their and the organisation's work. 

People have seen that the community allows them to cross organisational and silo boundaries in support of their workflow and in doing so to engage with a wide variety of people concerned with their work issues. The groups are providing a way of overcoming blockages that hinder effectiveness in the workplace. They are in their infancy - some will thrive others will wither and die. New groups will be created. Harold Jarche talks about a "gentle hand" being needed to encourage groups in a community so that engagement occurs. This is true social learning. "Drinks after work" is to trivialise social learning.  

In the SLC we have, between the 900 or so of us involved, established a community that possesses and has shared a vast range of knowledge, experience and (most important) a network that is orders of magnitude greater than the community itself. It is capable of adding value to almost any aspect of the community's topic of social learning. That is power indeed and I, for one, will be doing my bit to ensure that Jane is not tempted any time soon to suggest that the SLC has run its course! 

A change management approach is needed to developing the usefulness of a community - most importantly within an organisation development context. I addressed this in my blog a few weeks ago ( working the issue of the emotional energy needed to get people to engage.

In my shed in the garden I have a toolkit which I use for my DIY. There are many tools in it - some are big favourites. I even instinctively turn to them first when tackling any job - but they are not always the most appropriate ones for the work I have to do. Translating the analogy - if people don't sense the appropriateness of using a social network, they won't use it. "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still!"  This applies as much to trying to force senior management to change culture as it does to asking a junior person in the organisation to use a network for which they see no benefit.

The trick has to be to fan the sparks of groups that emerge - by asking questions, giving ideas, seeking opinions etc so that imaginations are captured. Sparks become flames and heat is generated. People become comfortable in their communities - able to share problems, willing to give of their experience, brave enough to supportively critique others. For me these are the things that in the end foster culture change. 

I believe that in our social networks we have the chance to very subtly effect the necessary culture change through application of the "gentle hand". Good behaviour, seen as supportive to the individual in giving of their best in the workplace, has a habit of spreading.  Whilst in many organisations there is a negative, constraining or even a blame culture, that does not repeat itself in the cultures of online communities that survive and thrive.  They are more characterised by support, openness, willingness to help, listening and a longer list of similar characteristics that most of us would recognise as being likely to make us want to be part of them.  

Well nurtured, online communities and groups within them will undoubtedly enhance workplace performance and people will learn to cross boundaries and work smarter.  People in the communities will grow as a result, feeling progressively more comfortable to share and to listen to the advice and experience – and the critique – of others.  But we have a further and greater opportunity – that of establishing in the communities such a powerful culture that it spills over into the whole of working life.  If it can do that it will help the evolution of the workplace into the networked collaborative place that it needs to be to align with our wider social environments.  

As change agents within our organisations, let us recognise the channel that online communities provide to us and let us use them to help business leaders in the on-going process of reinvention of the organisation that is essential to survival in today’s environment. 

I will be blogging about some of the “how to’s” of online community leadership in a series of posts over the next few weeks.