Friday, 19 August 2011


– Is management an old paradigm in modern learning?

Social learning, where there is no hierarchy, peer learning, learning communities, communities of practice, SoMe based groups on all the various platforms – dominantly characterised by informality and mutuality.  But we still talk about “management” of communities! Why? 

What are we meaning when we talk about “management” of communities?  Most of the discussion comes from within formal organisations – whether it be school, college, university, not for profit, company, professional organisation or wherever, so are we getting hooked on a word that belongs in that formality. At the same time the world that we are striving to create and in which we increasingly operate is characterised by a lack of structure, rules, hierarchy, procedures and all the other things that are taught in “management” courses and written about in the myriad of textbooks that line the shelves. 

“Management” speaks of transaction, organising, leading controlling and all those words of its paradigm.  Is that what we experience and aim to foster in our various communities – the ones we choose to join, learn from and enhance by our own sharing and insight?  Is that what we seek to foster in the communities we create, nurture and whose participants we help and encourage to walk through Alice’s Looking Glass and experience the incredible world of social learning? 

I don’t think so.  Therefore why have we allowed ourselves to describe what we do in our communities as “managing” them? 

Yes, of course there is a need to provide boundaries, guidance, assistance, and occasionally to ask participants to respect the norms and scope of the community, but our role in L&D is of a far higher order and more subtle and sophisticated than mundane “management” of the interaction in the community. 

So what are we really talking about when we speak of “managing communities”.  Facilitation covers part of it, helping people to join, embed, contribute and learn from them by doing whatever it takes to enable each person to self-learn and self-regulate within the bounds of the community.  But that is only part of it.  My feeling is that community leadership describes the role better and I want to explore  that a bit. 

Experience of communities tells me that left to themselves they will eventually pass their maturity, their sell by date, and soon afterwards exceed their use by date. People get bored if things are left to themselves. Energy and the unspoken compulsion to do something to help eventually peters out and apathy and non-involvement sets in.  It happens in every kind of community to which we belong, virtual or face to face.  If there is no leadership, there is no purpose, growth in content depth and fellowship declines, vision dies, commitment falls and eventually the inevitable happens.  In the 21st century we don’t seek to revive it, we discard it and create something new – and in doing so we risk losing what is actually of huge value. 

What then are the characteristics of community leadership that might be considered? 

·         Community hygiene
·         Ultimate guardianship of the scope
·         Assurer of the community norms – ensuring mutual respect is observed
·         The human face – welcoming, assisting, encouraging, thanking, linking
·         Inspirer – providing new avenues of thought to be explored
·         Informer – sharing observation, knowledge and insight including that gathered from outside the community
·         Coach and helper – providing technical assistance, content explanation 

Does any of that require an appointed role or a designated accountability?  A definition of leadership that I have always found useful is 

·         Seeing what needs to be done
·         Being prepared to stand up for it
·         Carrying other people with you 

In our connected world in which structure and hierarchy become increasingly irrelevant this kind of leadership is part of the mutuality and the responsibility that should be in all our minds when we create, enter and take part in communities. 

Our role in Learning and Development? To spot and to fill the gaps that the community has not realised or is unable to fill for itself – a servant role that at the same time nourishes, challenges and nurtures with the intent of enhancing the capacity, motivation and capability of everyone in the community.  

Let’s therefore talk more about Leadership in communities and what that means and leave behind the “M” word that belongs in a passing world.


  1. Nic, a really thought provoking article which initially found me disagreeing and then agreeing with you.

    I think its a subtle combination of the two - sometimes a community needs a leader othertimes it needs managing - it is a difficult balance and the best communities are probably leadeged by someone who can successfully combine the skills and understand what the communitiy needs at any given point in time.

  2. Yes, management is a loaded word. I picked up the modifier, "the gentle hand" of a community manager a while back, which tries to convey a different type of management. My latest metaphor is a convener of a community dance hall:

    As you note, it's really servant leadership that's needed in communities (same initials as social learning too!) SL4SL.