"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 (http://bit.ly/pUPzaU )
So I’ll 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 SME’s 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