E-Learning for the BC Tech Industry 

An opinionated monthly column exploring the current use, future potential, and commercial value of e-learning in BCs high tech sector.

Online Communities and the Secret Sauce: June 13th, 2003


By Paul Stacey


In a corporation only 30% of learning is handled formally through courses, workshops and the like - 70% of learning is informal. How can organizations support informal learning?


For working professionals one of the most valued forms of learning is peer-to-peer sharing of "war stories", lessons learned, experiential problem solving, and best practices. How can organizations support peer-to-peer knowledge exchange?


Governance, large and small, is seeking to increase participation rates and enable greater public input into decision making. How can government enable grassroots participation through online social networks that support democratic practice and public service?


E-learning (K-12, post-secondary, and corporate) over the past few years has been almost exclusively focused on formal learning - online courses, modules, and units that are tested and marked. Missing has been attention to the social/cultural aspects of learning.


At a physical facility you have hallway conversations with friends, impromptu study groups in the library, philosophical debates at the pub. These encounters and exchanges are essential elements of the learning process. How can e-learning based education support the social/cultural aspects of learning?


Virtually every organization has a web site these days. Web sites are top down push of prepackaged, approved content out to the masses. How can organizations supplement static web sites with dynamic online environments that enable market pull, that allow clients and end users to have a voice, add value, and visibly contribute to the culture/business of an organization?


The answer to all of the above questions is through Online Communities.


Online communities leverage the web for what it does best - enabling connections, networking and exchange between people.


The emphasis on formal learning and prepackaged top down pushed content has sucked the life out of web experience. Online communities put the juice back in and go a long way to satisfying the market pull side of online learning.


As a complement to static web sites online communities focus attention on user/client needs - a kind of informal Client Relationship Management (CRM) application.


The idea is simple but potent. Imagine if you enabled your user base (clients, employees, members, students) to form an affiliated online community to network, explore ideas, discuss issues, and learn from each other. Rather than a top down push of structure and content the users themselves are empowered to define the online community, actively participate, and contribute content to the community in an open way.


There are several powerful and motivating forces behind online communities. The first is grassroots self-publish. Online communities welcome and invite end user input. Users can publish comments, documents, suggestions, questions. Content in a community organically emerges and is CO-constructed as opposed to the scripted and prescribed content pablum of most web sites and e-learning.


A second motivating force is people contact. As we surf, search, and generally explore the web virtually every site we visit is closed and anonymous. Web sites and e-learning lack human habitation. Who else is on that site when we are there? Why are they there? What do they have to contribute? Is there anyone I can talk to? Online communities make people on the web visible.


A third motivating force is motivating factor is influence. Participants in online communities have a voice and means to influence. Lively online communities take polls, seek advice, conduct brainstorms, discuss issues. Users can actively and directly affect business, events, and lives.


You've seen the reality shows on TV where the audience gets to vote as part of the "live" event? For example the recently launched show "Last Comic Standing" has the audience voting on which comic is the funniest (who gets to stay and continue on), and which is the least funniest (who then has to leave and is eliminated). This kind of polling and audience involvement in determining the outcome of "live" events started on the web and is amplified, and implemented with far more panache than TV, in online communities.


The concept of online communities have actually been around for a while. Online communities have long been considered an element of Knowledge Management (KM) practice. The Online Community Report http://www.onlinecommunityreport.com has tracked the history and evolution of online communities since 1997. Its a great source of information on all aspects of online communities including; business, finance, software, legal, events, jobs, articles, resources, innovations and features.


Reading Jim Cashel's current feature, Top Ten Trends for Online Communities you can't help but feel the wear and tear online communities have taken as a business. But, if "user popularity of online communities continues to swell" as Jim says, the market will have its way, successful business models will take hold.


On a personal note I confess to being one of those swelling numbers of online community adopters. Over the past few years I've become increasingly immersed in online community building. Its exciting!


I see online communities emerging from the narrow niches and basic functionality of the past to more robust and fully engaging environments. I'm convinced online communities will become widespread and an essential element of every organization's web site and every e-learning implementation.


By now you're probably saying "let me see one."


Online communities can be open or closed. There are lots of sites to choose from but Guitarists.net is a good introduction as an open Online Guitar Community.  http://www.guitarists.net


Closer to the heart for me are the actual communities I've been working with:


cogniSource is an online community for eduSource - Canada's network of learning object repositories.  http://www.cognisource.ca


LearningTimes an open online community for professional educators. http://www.learningtimes.org


And I recently came back from Lisbon where I was helping host and produce the World Education Market's Online Community, (see http://www.wemex.com) during their annual live conference event.


Successful online communities have what I think of as their "secret sauce". What is the Secret Sauce?


I can't say - its a secret. But, I invite you to explore the above community examples and by sampling, investigate for yourself each communities secret sauce.


The driving questions around secret sauce are:

  • what draws people to an online community?

  • what supports and incites participation in an online community?

  • what constitutes a valuable contribution?

  • what keeps people coming back?

The answers to these questions relate as much to the skills of the online community host, producer, coordinator or steward, as they do to the underlying online community technology.


A particularly useful source of ideas on secret sauce ingredients is the book "Cultivating Communities of Practice" by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott and William Snyder (Harvard Business School Press, 2002). http://www.cultivatingcommunities.com Essential reading for all online community builders.


I l ook forward to interacting with you in an Online Community.


Paul Stacey, is an e-learning specialist in corporate and higher education working in Simon Fraser University's eLearning Innovation Centre (eLINC). Paul helps host & produce LearningTimes an online community for education professionals. Contact: Paul Stacey

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E-Learning: An opinionated monthly column exploring the current use, future potential, and commercial value of e-learning in BCs high tech sector.

E-Learning Archive: an index and links to all the E-learning columns Paul has written for T-Net going back to April 2000.