Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Supporting one another in Online Communities - Encouraging the right Behaviour

My reading and thinking and my experience over the last few days stimulates this post.  It’s about online behaviour which sounded a discord either for me or for others.  I may even have unwittingly been the cause of one or more difficulty for you in my enthusiasm to explore and to learn.  If I have, I apologise. The occurrences lead me to discuss how we use our online learning communities. 

I have written before about the fact that every community in every sphere of life has some kind of boundaries and a set of norms (spoken or unspoken) for what’s “OK” in that community.  So how does this work out in practice? 

I’ve mentioned before that I live in a small but very inclusive and welcoming rural community.  In that community there are unwritten norms that one is expected to adhere to in order to be seen to be a “member in good standing”.  They stem from values of respect, politeness and a recognition that the community needs to be mutually supportive.  However it is not as simple as that! Someone in the village said to us that even in a small and caring community like this great care needs to be taken about what is said and done in order to maintain the unity and the supportive environment “It’s like treading on eggshells!”  If you have lived in a village you will know what I mean! 

So how is this relevant to our online communities – often far bigger than our little village, faster moving, impersonal, limited mostly to our work lives, frequently transient, invisible to one another and so on? 

The principles of social learning are based in an open culture of mutual support, transparency and a willingness to give in order to receive.  It’s one to which we all sign up almost unconsciously by registering in or joining our communities in expectation and excitement. Harold Jarche quotes the helpful metaphor of the rules and norms of dancing (http://bit.ly/nDjPgw).  We have all experienced the huge benefits that accrue when we are in this kind of environment.  

But with the instant and sometimes fleeting nature of the communication in an online community it is very easy for that atmosphere to be broken down and for it to become fractious, dysfunctional and hurtful to the point that participants are put off and withdraw (“I didn’t come here to be talked to like that – I came to share and to receive).  A perceived snub, a careless word, a treading on toes to continue Harold’s metaphor, (probably nearly always an accidental omission) through not attributing a contribution that is quoted, a failure to separate the substance of a disagreement from the person so that the matter becomes personal, a breaking of the unwritten community rules by doing something which is not fair or transparent, a hidden conversation (via another platform or a back channel)  which crosses the boundaries of our “circles” within the community – all of these are behaviours that can inhibit, damage or destroy that which we are all striving so hard to achieve. 

The moment we take each other for granted and fail to consider the reactions of all those who will read our messages and posts we risk alienating and causing discords that will distract both from our own message and the usefulness of the community.  It will become a more dangerous place to be. 

As L&D and Performance Support professionals seeking to understand and exploit “working smarter” we have a wonderful opportunity through our various “places” of contact to learn for ourselves. In them we can identify and practice in the virtual environment  the behaviours that need to be nurtured in the communities we seek to foster in the workplace. 

As our journeys in our communities progress and our understanding develops, so will we each gain insights that may differ from what was initially a commonly held belief.  It is then that sensitivity, respect and a care for the language we use in our Tweets, posts and other messages becomes important if we are to continue to have the confidence in one another to share what we are learning and to be able to comment honestly on each other’s work. 

I have written this in the context of “I” and “we” because I am aware that I am a member of a number of communities – some consciously, some by association and some of which I am unaware, taken into them by people even whose names I do not know.  This blog has an expanding readership of several hundred  for each post – which means its potential reach is many thousands.  My language and sensitivity may influence many. 

My desire is for this blog to become an enduring forum where the issues of living in virtual communities that have real value and meaning in our lives can be discussed, argued about and the results shared so that the inexorable and rapid move to the wirearchy, the networked environment, the collaborative workplace is one which is as comfortable for those we seek to help as it can be. You, the reader, like me the writer, can do your part by fostering in your communities those behaviours you value in working with others.  

Only if we can provide an environment that is attractive to the newbie and the shy, the reticent, the uncertain, the technophobe will we succeed in helping them to participate and to share the value that is in all of us from our experience and range of thinking skills. Encouragement, support, patience in explaining, getting “legs” under another’s practical problems to help find solutions, recognition and praise will go a long way in helping one another. If we can live together like this in our cyber space we will be able to begin to unleash for our organisations the enormous and currently hidden potential that lies within them – the ability to work smarter.

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