Researchers and learning consultants Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner are bona fide experts in how professionals interact in communities. They have conducted extensive research, written papers and books on their findings, and acted as consultants to “test the usefulness of [their] concepts, theories, and techniques.” Across many disciplines—teaching, electrical engineering, banking, and so forth—they found similarities in the ways people connect with each other and how such communities come to thrive.
The Wenger-Trayners coined the term community of practice, “a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” Communities of practice often form to bring together people across a field or profession—teachers from nationwide, bankers in a professional association, or musicians worldwide who play similar genres—but they can also be instituted within a single organization, and with beneficial results. Emerging technologies from the past few years have made virtual and hybrid communities of practice not only more interesting and engaging, but also an increasingly desirable goal for an organization if they can get it right.
Technologies that do community building right
There are now many platforms upon which to build a virtual community of practice, but two put collaborative learning at the center of their products.
Disco.co is a no-code platform where learning designers and community managers can facilitate virtual learning through courses, knowledge libraries, learning paths, channels and forums, live events, and an AI co-pilot. In a corporate environment, usage of Disco might look like this:
Sarah is implementing a community to support engineers who are experimenting with new product ideas and bringing those ideas to leadership. She builds a learning experience in Disco that includes:
- Short videos and practice assignments (using native tools);
- A branched scenario (SCORM upload);
- Live sessions with a coach;
- And chat forums.
Learners access each step in the learning path through an easy-to-navigate interface. As the engineers build their products or practice pitching them to leadership, they can submit drafts and receive feedback from the community manager and participants.
With Disco.co a learning designer can combine interactive products like Slack with learning management system capabilities. It is worthwhile to explore its flexibility and integrative capabilities for building an in-house virtual community.
Circle.so is another community-promoting platform that has become a favorite among content creators. It has similar functionality as Disco, though less robust course design and delivery capabilities.
Rob Fitzpatrick, author of Write Useful Books: A Modern Approach to Designing and Refining Recommendable Nonfiction, uses Circle.so for his subscription-based community for would-be authors. Readers begged him to start an online venue where they could get support when applying the strategies in the book to their own writing. In Fitzpatrick’s Modern Authors community, members hold one another accountable, access tips and tools, and offer each other feedback. There are channels devoted to specific topics—the various steps in the book writing process—and members provide updates on their progress each week. The resource channels contain curated videos and podcasts, how-to guides, and reference sheets.
New participants in Modern Authors can go through the archives to read threads about other members’ book projects. Since everyone has a similar goal (publishing a book), there are countless examples from which to learn. There is also a community manager, a subject expert who responds to every thread and links resources across threads. Motivated members (subscribers) and a high level of engagement and feedback ensure that participants are getting what they paid for.
Creators and learning designers who use platforms like Disco.co or Circle.so have learned many lessons. If you are starting a new community or trying to revive or enhance an existing one, these suggestions can help you get there.
Determine your role in community building and the available resources and support. If you’re charged with designing a learning experience that includes a community component, make sure you have the power and capabilities to do so. Coordinating with your project’s stakeholders is essential. Don’t start a learning community with people who don’t want it, won't use it, or won’t pay for it. If you’re designing a community to help improve job performance, try to make it a place where the knowledge base, learning events (courses, VILTs), and feedback mechanisms all come together in one location.
Establish a clear purpose for the learning community. Speak with managers and employees to align your plans with their needs. It’s easy to fixate on a particular solution—for example, a weekly fireside chat event—that makes little sense for the work context and that no one attends. Ask managers and employees what they want and need, and about any constraints on their environment and team goals, and go from there.
Select an easy-to-use platform that can integrate multiple parts of an employee training, learning, or performance journey. Disco and Circle are examples of platforms where designers are merging resources and experiences. Some one-stop platforms are being built by start-ups that are receptive to customer feedback. I’ve had calls with CEOs and lead developers of up-and-coming companies and found them responsive to requests that would make for better community and continued usage. When customers present real-life use cases, smart companies incorporate them into their development and expansion of their platforms.
Appoint a community manager or some other designee to facilitate the group. The goal is for participants to engage in the community without support, but until that happens, a dedicated person will help boost initial engagement, smooth out misunderstandings among participants, and expedite the resolution of any tech issues.
Nominate employee and manager champions to boost engagement in the community. This is like an Instagram takeover, where a community member temporarily increases their engagement in the learning community to boost overall participation. Select employees to do this; they will need to spend time investigating the platform, and they might discover features they continue to use after the takeover.
Set aside time for employees and managers to learn about the community and to practice being part of it. If you want the community to be more than an online course discussion board that everyone ignores, managers and employees must spend time in it and get into the habit of generating conversation with each other.
Audit community engagement. Monitor engagement data such as who takes part, how they engage, and where they are active in the platform. Read through conversations and review data from an AI co-pilot to learn which areas of the community are getting the most and least attention. Review and assess community engagement with a decision-making mindset so that you can make modifications that build a stronger knowledge base and ultimately improve the community.
Coach managers to talk about the community during their one-on-ones. Provide managers with questions to ask staff about how they use the community: When are they engaging? What do they find helpful (or not) on the site? What would they change to make it more useful? Managers can steer employees to direct their knowledge and skill questions to the community, and also encourage them to respond to questions posed by others in the group. With a guided template for meeting these goals, managers can help facilitate relationships among the people in the community.
Build your own
More than ever, virtual learning communities can improve the learning and performance journeys of employees. Given sufficient attention to platform design and the quality of the learning activities, they can help participants play a more energetic and substantial role in a workplace. This is not a new topic, but what is new are the tools for getting there. Start small with a pilot for your own team. Once you’ve collected data, synthesized it, and analyzed it, you can use your findings to create a more expansive community that enables employees to find their place at work.