I’ve been interested in communities for years. The internal dynamics of communities of practice was the focus of my dissertation research, and throughout my career I’ve belonged to several work-related communities to which I credit much of my success and development. Involvement in communities has also fueled my passion for my field and my work.

In the rise of social media and the accompanying interest in social learning, community building (particularly of the online variety) is a topic I’m asked to speak on fairly often. I hear a lot of similar concerns from people who come to those conversations. There are also things I am always surprised not to hear much about. Here are a few.

I hear a lot about: “What” vs. I don’t hear much about: “Why”

Sometimes people come to presentations I give with specific goals in mind. Because they are usually from L&D they typically aren’t in the business of managing huge communities to support sales or company branding. They may want to create alumni groups for course graduates or offer spaces in which workers in particular areas—like sales or customer service staff—can connect. Even then they may not have any idea of what they think “success” will look like.

Unfortunately, as often as not people seem to be interested because, as the word “community” appears more and more often in business literature, management has a vague sense that the organization should therefore have some. Last week I met someone who’d been charged with creating “communities” only because the new LMS came with that feature. She hadn’t even been offered guidance on who should connect with whom, or why.

Give more thought to real reasons and goals, and consider what success will look like: are you looking for 1,000 “likes,” or for artifacts developed and reused; connections made with a resulting decrease in rework, redundancy, or error; or time reduced in finding information and expertise? Or something else?

I hear a lot about: “Things we are worried they might say” vs. I don’t hear much about: “What will they talk about?”

I find a pervasive “if we build it, they will come” mentality about communities. Realize that what interests management may not interest everyone else. Seriously: No one wants to talk about your organization’s performance review policy except the people in HR, and maybe the disgruntled recipients of unfavorable reviews.

When workers (or customers, or clients, or patients) get together, what do they talk about? What questions or areas of interest come up time and again in training courses? You don’t join communities unless you perceive value, and you don’t contribute to conversations that don’t interest you. By participating and cultivating a community you may be able to venture into some of the areas that interest you or the organization, but you’d be well advised not to try and build the community around just that. Also consider the reality of organizational culture: If people aren’t talking to each other now, starting an online group won’t change that.  

I hear a lot about: “Platforms” vs. I don’t hear much about: “User experience”

Every URL, password, and secret handshake puts one more barrier between humans and the community. Emphasize and make more prominent the things the community likes and uses, and resist the temptation to keep adding on features no one wants.

Realize that most people don’t change default settings, so if there are features like additional privacy settings or alerts (say, for new messages or comments) be sure people know how to get to them, or set thoughtful defaults in the first place. Don’t make dramatic changes to interfaces, or if you do, prepare yourself for a week or two of blowback—if you’ve ever witnessed the hue and cry when Facebook changes something, you’ll know what I mean.

I hear a lot about: “Control” vs. I don’t hear much about: “What happens when you overwind the clock”

Some organizations are so concerned about control that they kill the very thing they say they want to start. Figure 1 is an example from my own past, from a pet project started by a now-retired colleague. He wanted an online discussion forum for HR-related issues. This is what users had to agree to before commenting—it might as well have said, “Please don’t post anything.”

Figure 1: How to kill comments (from Jane Bozarth’s Social Media for Trainers)

Similarly, in a stunning case of organizational schizophrenia, a friend says her management shut down an active community focused on innovation—because it wasn’t structured enough. (It reminds me of an old Mr. Fish cartoon. I paraphrase: The pointing angry boss of Creativity Corporation says, “You get back to that *&%$ cubicle and start thinking outside the box!”)

What I hear a lot about: “Shiny Happy Warm Fuzzy” vs. What I don’t hear much about: “The Dark Side”

Communities have politics just like other human structures: people bully, troll, dominate, and gang up on others. People get excluded. People get outshouted or marginalized. Cliques emerge. I recently watched a vibrant group nearly collapse when a few senior members went all Lord of the Flies on a newer member who said she felt they launched too many off-topic posts. I’ve seen community members protect the group at the expense of hearing legitimate, potentially useful feedback.

Without careful gardening, communities can become too insular and end up perpetuating bad practice. Be aware that Groupthink can happen anywhere.

I hear a lot about: “Them” vs. I don’t hear much about: “Us”

Communities need someone who will nurture them, especially when they are new. Someone needs to start conversations, appoint ambassadors to start other conversations or supply content, nudge quieter members, redirect when things go way off point, recognize when things have gone off point in an interesting or useful direction, and watch for dysfunction like the insularity mentioned above.

Those in the L&D world charged with supporting communities would do well to develop community management skills, especially:

Listen. We’re great at broadcasting and disseminating content. What do people what to talk about, not just receive?

Participate. You need to be a community member, too. Try to join conversations as a peer contributor, not a facilitator.

Include. Let others help find and create content, guide conversation, start new discussions. It’s a change for many of us in the field, but will pay off in a more vibrant, sustainable community.