Thursday, December 6, 2007

Building an effective learning community

Here's a sampling of the ingredients one needs to build an effective learning community.
  • A good story. You need to have the basic ingredient of a community, which is a common interest shared by many people. Start with a good set of content (courses, discussions, resources) so that people have a foundation upon which they can build and participate.

  • Self-interest. There has to be a benefit for the participants, and that benefit has to be self-evident. Why should people cooperate and spend time working on the "community" when it distracts them from doing the 50 million other tasks that are assigned to them?

  • Critical mass. The community will only be self-regenerating once you have enough people actively engaged. Getting to this point is terribly difficult, and maintaining the activity can be difficult. One trick Moser has found to be helpful is to cause controversy. "This gets people more interested. The hard part is finding controversial subjects that are not insulting. For example? Discuss why you think one approach to solving the problem is better than another."

  • Ease of use. The slightest hurdle for people to participate either as contributors or as data receivers will turn people off from the experience. Stick to "best of breed" Web practices (e.g., easy navigation, fast download, staying away from heavy multimedia, using an effective search engine, and avoiding clutter). "You may need librarians and moderators to ensure that the site doesn't get cluttered with 15 versions of everyone's documents and that the discussions don't get hijacked by a few individuals."

  • Culture. If there isn't a culture of sharing or of informal learning in your organization, you won't be able to create one just by using a social network software site. "People have to feel that there is no downside to participating in the activity. Management has to support it. (Good luck!) And management has to participate, also."

  • Luck. This is by far the most important ingredient, says Moser. "You can have all the ingredients, but there is that intangible thing about luck that probably comprises 60 percent of the deciding factor as to whether the site will mushroom, die, or hobble along. But just because it hobbles along doesn't mean you should give up. Luck can come along at any time." A new person may join the organization and spice up the discussions, for example, prompting people to be drawn in. "Why is YouTube more popular than Yahoo! videos or Google videos? Mostly luck. There were many other video sites that were comparable and available at the same time. YouTube got lucky."

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