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

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