As a professional community of practice, The eLearning Guild cares deeply about creating and fostering community, particularly social learning communities. But in the digital age, the meaning of community can be tough to pin down. Turning to members of the community, Guild executive director David Kelly facilitated a discussion on the topic at DevLearn 2017 Conference & Expo in late October. The session featured panelists Julian Stodd and Trina Rimmer fielding questions from a highly engaged group of about 40 attendees.

In pre-digital times, physical proximity was a key element of community development. While in-person meetings can be instrumental in helping some community members feel a sense of belonging, in the digital age, communities can and do form among individuals who are separated geographically and might never actually meet.

One element of community that has not changed, as both Stodd and Rimmer emphasized, is its voluntary nature. As corporate trainers attempt to leverage and measure social and collaborative learning to create a sense of community at work, some companies mandate participation in social learning or problem-solving digital communities. This rarely works.

Just as getting together periodically is insufficient to turn a group into a community, social learning shared among colleagues does not necessarily create a community, the panelists emphasized. Stodd pointed out what might be obvious but is often overlooked in clumsy attempts to create community from the top down: Community requires a level of trust and shared values. These cannot be externally imposed.

Identity and exclusion

Participants raised two of the less positive aspects of community creation: Defining who may join, by definition, excludes some people; and some communities propagate or tolerate “bad” behavior from community members. “How can a large group do awful things that a majority [of community members] say they deplore?” Stodd asked, then answered his own question: fear of ostracism.

Community is defined by a sense of identity with the group, including shared values. Thus part of a community’s definition is “what we are not.”

Communities require rules and consequences to function; these exist on formal and informal levels. The more formal rules might include criteria for joining and remaining a member and rules governing conduct. Communities generally stipulate consequences for breaking their rules—for example, what behaviors can result in a termination of membership. Whether and how evenly rules are enforced affects how much trust members have in the community.

But the informal rules, social norms—and consequences for going against the norm— are equally, if not more, significant to determining members’ level of trust and cohesiveness in a community. Severe social consequences for “bad” behavior, such as ridiculing a member who shares a failure, can help ensure that a community is supportive to its members, regardless of their level of knowledge or skill. This is because the loss of community is felt more strongly than the “gain” of joining a community or continuing to belong, Stodd said.

The flipside is also true: If bad behavior is ignored, some community members lose trust in the community. “Toxic” communities are communities where the negative behavior of one or a few members is broadly tolerated. People don’t speak up, he said, because they fear the repercussions. An audience member concurred, mentioning a group where a member had been ostracized (and ultimately left) because she had spoken up to protest homophobic bullying occurring in the group.

Managers can create “scaffolding”

Managers often claim that promoting, measuring, and perhaps formalizing “social learning” among their employees is a key goal. Social learning is already happening, Rimmer and Stodd said; the question managers should ask themselves is not how to make it happen but what they hope to accomplish by trying to capture it. If their goal is to foster employees’ sense of community at work, there are steps managers can take to create conditions where social learning communities can develop.

Social learning on its own does not create community, but it is one of the elements that can contribute to communities forming. However, it cannot be forced; the social learning can, should, and generally does develop organically.

But managers can provide logistical support to nascent communities. This can include a physical or online meeting place and storage space for physical or electronic documents and other shared materials.

Managers can nurture conditions where community can develop in other ways. They do this by providing “scaffolding”: a safe space for colleagues to build networks, develop trust among members, and share information. A community must include the safety for any member to ask questions, even “stupid” ones, and get genuine answers—not insults or attacks. This echoes elements of Guild Master Jane Bozarth’s idea of communities of practice (cited at the beginning of this article), where more experienced members often mentor less experienced members, and professionals share knowledge—as well as their own successes and failures—with the goals of improving their own practice and helping other members improve as well.

In fact, the idea of community underlying a community of practice is deeper than mere membership or even showing up at community gatherings. Members need to be engaged and motivated and committed to “not making it hard for others,” Bozarth said in a DevLearn session on communities of practice. That means, in part, offering helpful feedback to new or inexperienced community members, not “trolling” them, she said. (Editor’s note: Trolling refers to providing negative or insulting feedback that does not offer anything constructive to the inexperienced.)

Bozarth addressed the issue of “lurkers,” a phenomenon that occurs in both in-person and online communities. These members do not participate or contribute, but they take advantage of the information and advice shared by more engaged members. The presence of lurkers or “free riders” causes resentment among more committed members and can, in the long run, destroy the feeling of community, Bozarth said. Members of a community of practice should be motivated to contribute, often follow a trajectory of participation as they grow in knowledge, and should be accountable to one another. “People have to want to be there and take part,” she said.

Besides providing the conditions that allow communities to form, Rimmer, Stodd, and Bozarth are in agreement about what else management can do: Get out of the way. Managers should not mandate membership or participation, impose rules or demands on the community, or turn members’ “passion projects” into work assignments.

“Managers cannot mandate a community of practice,” Bozarth said. “They can bring together the right people, then step back and let it happen.”