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.

Friday, 16 September 2011


This post is all about one person’s (me) timeline of transformation from an e-mail dinosaur to something else…..  

It is about a journey, my testimony, but also something else very fundamental. It is about the need to help people into the socially networked wirearchy of collaboration that is so rapidly becoming our workplace – and our way of life.  That special something is the need to have someone at hand to help when problems occur and panic and confusion threatens progress, someone who will inject new ideas and provide the encouragement that energises and gives the confidence to take the next step. 

2 years ago, 62 years old, I was very happy using e-mail as my communication platform. I used Skype for social purposes – mostly on poor lines to speak to my wife while away for extended periods in places where phones are expensive. I had a LinkedIn address but never used the platform. 

18 months ago I started to use Skype for business conferencing on a global basis – audio, not chat and certainly no video because bandwidth restrictions at my client prevented it.  E-Mail remained the tool of choice – in fact the only tool if I am really honest. I was beginning on a crash course of using and learning about the potential of webinars – I had asked a question via the chat box and I had even dared to take part in the participant chat on one of them.  But that was a scary experience! 

Just over a year ago this week I started (very cautiously) to explore Twitter, I had just set up a blog but had not used it – and was anxious about doing so. I had a gMail address and a Google account. 

What a difference a year makes! The year since has taught me so much about the incredible power of some of the many platforms and applications that we now have at our disposal. I will now explore, evaluate, and either incorporate or discard with a degree of confidence – although I remain somewhat challenged in getting going with a new one when I make that decision. 


Here’s how it began just about 15 months ago…… 

My great friend and colleague, Robert Kydd, had become fascinated by the discoveries I was making in researching global best learning practice for the major client where he works.  I was busy exploring the enabling and supporting possibilities of social learning – he recognised the need for, and was into understanding the platforms and their potential use. I was persuaded to open my gMail address and Google account.  He even managed to get me to use GoogleTalk a couple of times.  My journey towards multiple platforms had begun - but I was without direction. 

Looking back I lacked a skill that I believe will be seen to be essential for knowledge workers and workplace collaborators in the years to come. – that of carefully assessing one’s communication needs and matching to them the host of available solutions to provide an effective and efficient toolkit for one’s work. That skill has had to be developed very quickly indeed.

Robert suggested having a blog of my own to document my discoveries. Whoa! That’s a step too far.  Robert was in a far away place and we could only “talk” electronically except at quarterly meetings where he did his best to help. But he was speaking a language and urging me to do things for which I was not ready. Not Robert’s fault – he took me a giant step down the road and we were on our parallel journeys together. 

Baffled by the technology, nervous of disclosure and security issues, not understanding much of the “tech speak” language surrounding apps and the SoMe, but hugely excited by the potential of it all, I was disempowered and frustrated.  

(This next bit sounds really kitch!) 

Then into my life, via a brilliant webinar she did for the Learning and Skills Group ( ) , came Jane Hart!  

Her exposition of the value of Ning, Elgg and other platforms I had never heard of lit my fuse – I began to see a way forward – but I was like someone with no arms and no legs – I had no idea what to do next and lacked the courage to take the next step forward from the point I had reached with Robert’s help.  I researched Jane – and became awed both by her reputation and the sheer scale of her knowledge base, all made so accessible in her website and on her blog ( ). When I found that Jane’s home base is only an hour’s travel from mine, light dawned – I could do what all Boomers do – set up a meeting!  

Looking back, coffee in the cloister restaurant of an English cathedral seems a bit of a quaint way to have kick-started my journey. Jane inspired me with the total common sense of the empowerment of social learning through the SoMe. It had to be the way forward – but she gave me a problem.  “You will not understand until you have involved yourself and tried it out”  

Me on Twitter?  You have to be joking! 

Two months later I knew Jane was right – I had done nothing to engage, but was even more convinced.  This was the moment to take the next step – but how?  “Get involved” my heart said – “be cautious” my head screamed – “I don’t know how”, my senses complained.  I know – boomer response – call Jane and ask for help! To my surprise she suggested we meet so she could help!  Little did I know…… 

That was it – a morning chatting, a bottle of wine – and then I was being gently but firmly installed with a Twitter account and a blog and a whole afternoon when I had to practice – EXTREME stress!  (Sounds foolish in retrospect but it was very real at the time) 

What has followed since has been incredible – my new found friend and mentor has had to be very patient! The following is a light hearted prĂ©cis of a little of it…… 

"Come on now!  You do it this way - no not like that! Duh! I'll spell out the steps for you - do them one by one (Yes, dear friend). Can't you follow simple instructions?  Clearly not - let's try again - I'll write it out for you this time in easy words . That's better - your next lesson will be how to get into Twitter yourself - let's see if you need another lesson on how to sign in.....OK - got that bit - now try typing a message...... Good - now - oh no don't do that - you have told the whole world you think I am wonderful, I'm sure you intended that only for me!  (Some time later - when I have proved I can reliably - more or less - get into and use some of the media) Go to the xxxxx site and write a response – put down what you really believe...... Now you are in s*** - everyone is after you - but never mind - remember that if you don't narrow it everyone will see your tweets - too late - but I'm sure you will manage the consequences……  BTW - you could blog it as well - then all the rude comments will come straight back to you - well done - can I re-post it on my page please?”  

So it went on, coaching that was firm but light-hearted and always supportive……and a year later…… progress has been made …… 

“That conversation on Skype chat has been very interesting - when you’ve gathered your thoughts, if you post a blog, make sure you Tweet it and it will then get re-tweeted. (Yes, Jane) Make sure your Twitter address is prominent on your blog (Yes - mentor) You can put that stuff on SlideShare (Yes coach – if you show me how – NB revert 2 paragraphs!). Why don’t you do a webinar?  And you could write a book?  And conference speaking to share what is in your blogs about communities……..” (Now this is getting ridiculous – but my confidence is up and I am able to move forward) 

And Robert, who started this journey with me?  We are walking together. Now challenging one another to explore along our different lines, sharing the outcomes and supporting one another in influencing the situations around us.. 

Life has changed. 

That's coaching in action - if you are up for it - enjoy the ride!  


That will follow – because it has been a time when she and I have learned, shared and worked together.  The relationship has become a friendship – built on trust, shared experience and a common vision for networked Smart Working.  I will leave her to respond in due course 

But before I post my story, I must go back to the person who did so much to start me on the road.  This is  


“Analysing what has happened to Nic, I realise that there are three necessary components 

·         The Platforms themselves

·         A realisation of the process of using the platforms to engage with the potential community

·         The content and the passion to share it and learn from others 

As we began to understand how the platforms could be used, we engaged with existing communities and discovered the benefits that were emerging in the communities lives.  We gathered confidence and skill in interacting in this new environment to see those benefits at first hand. 

Nic realised that his experience and insight could add benefit.  He therefore went to the communities to share that insight and with an openness to learn from others. I saw the value of the community grow in a synergistic way as a result of Nic’s participation. At a personal level Nic’s having moved beyond simply networking into exploration of the SoMe for networking provided the light at the end of the tunnel – showing me that my efforts were not likely to be in vain. 

Now motivated, I used my own involvement in communities to which Nic had invited me such as the Social learning Community ( ) to frame the initiation and development of a Yammer community in my company which now numbers over 4000 

So what do we learn from all this? 

There has been humour, frustration, and elation when I got it right and have been able to access the power of it all. My experience illustrates a huge lesson for us all in our involvement in online communities and in social learning .We all need to know that there is someone, a real, warm, caring, intelligent human being who is prepared to invest in supporting one’s stumbling efforts. If, for whatever reason we are unskilled with the tools, they will be a block to our learning.  Comfortable with them, that immense and incredible new world of learning opens up like the views from the mountains as we walk and enjoy.  

I am immensely privileged to have two people support me so closely in my journey – and I know there are a host of others walking the same path, all of us seeking for each other’s success. Is that not what social learning is all about?

When we recognise the nature of the journey, we understand ourselves so much more. Then we are able to help others at whatever stage they are on their own journeys – and our own learning truly begins.  As we interact through the communities to which we belong, we do well to remember that, unseen, all of us are facing our own challenges and need each other’s support. It is in giving that we receive! 

I am still clumsy with the software and need a lot of help – but I have learned to “speak” in this new world – liberated to share my thoughts and to get feedback and insight from people who read them – even Jane seems to gain from them sometimes!  

Thank you Robert and Jane and all of you who read and comment on my small contributions – this new world is a great place in which to be and one in which every day is a learning adventure.  

Oh – and Ollie, your story needs to be told too…….