Roles in CoP’s Revisited: Learning

Learning is the role that defines a community. Interaction amongst members is the lifeblood. In this post I look at what, how and why members learn.

(This is the fifth post in a series of six that is a revision of a post I wrote on ATD’s “Learning Circuit’s Blog” on June 10, 2006, entitled “Roles in CoP’s” in which I introduced the 4L Model of Roles in Online Communities.)

Now we get to where the action is at in communities – Learning.  Communities are at their best when they are jointly:

  • seeking new knowledge,
  • sharing ideas and information,
  • recombining those ideas and information into new ideas,
  • co-creating products and content,
  • learning and practicing new skills,
  • sharing what the community has aggregated and created within the community and beyond.
Learners and Leaders
Learners and Leaders are at the core of the community.

But not only is learning the “stuff” that a community collects and creates, but the process of learning is the driving mechanism that makes a community run and thrive. For a community to work, it needs a solid core of members who are interacting with each other and the rest of the community.

In the comments to my post back in 2006, it was suggested that I was missing another role in my model.  One person even suggested that it was a 5th L – Love.  While it is true that in strong communities, love and compassion among members is quite normal, it is a characteristic of the community, not a role to be played.

Sense of Community

While greatly outnumbered by the Linkers and Lurkers, it is the Learning group of participants who drive the success of the community.  They identify themselves as “the community” and are the example to Linkers and Lurkers of what it means to be a member of the community.  For a community to endure, there must be a strong sense of what it means to be a member of that community.  Richard Millington of Feverbee characterizes sense of community as when members, “sacrifice part of their own identity to accept, embrace, and then defend the group identity.”

A community thrives by its connections, not by its collections!

– Valdis Krebs

In their article, Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory, David McMillan and David Chavis outline four foundational elements that contribute to a sense of community:

  1. Membership – Membership is a feeling that one has invested part of oneself to become a member and therefore has a right to belong.
  2. Influence – People only participate in a community if they feel they can influence the community
  3. Integration and Fulfillment of Needs – We want to join groups that make us better than we are today
  4. Shared Emotional Connections – Members have to feel that fellow members share the same values

The challenge is that these elements are hard, if at all possible, to teach in an in-person training event or a series of online courses. The best way to help develop these elements is through real-life experiences. Communities enable this sort of learning as members can experiment with new roles, take on new challenges, find mentors, and other experiential learning situations.

A Scenario of Learning

In a healthy community, interaction among members has a multiplier effect as engagement and involvement will. If during a project we are working on together you share with me a technique for accomplishing a task. I incorporate it into my work and my team is blown away and they adopt it. A fellow community member was looking at our project and suggested that we should do an online webinar for the community regarding our application of your technique. In addition to the spread of a great idea there are a number of other positives:

  • I learned how creative you are and how much you care about your work (learning about others),
  • I learned that collaborating can be effective and fun, (learning new ways of working),
  • You had never attended a webinar, let alone co-facilitated one and now you’re talking about doing a regular session (expanding skills),
  • Neither of us knew how many people were involved in the organization’s webinar program (learning about the organization),
  • Jane Smith asked me to join a committee in the organization (gaining exposure),
  • I never would have thought I would be able to attempt a project like this. And here we are – done. (learning about ourselves)

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger proposed that this situated learning – learning in real time in a context that is real, not simulated – is the way members of a community move from novice to fully participating members.

It is through becoming involved in the work of the community that members gain new knowledge, develop new skills, and expand their professional network. In working with others who share similar goals, attitudes, and beliefs that learners find the safety to experiment with new concepts and behaviors, share new ideas, challenge the way they have worked, and try out new roles.

Vehicles of Learning

Yes, there are passive learning opportunities – reading community content, watching videos, attending webinars. But the unique power of a community comes in collaborative activity amongst members. Some of those activities include:

  • co-creation of materials (reports, communication, marketing)
  • participation in discussion groups
  • research activities (surveys, data collection, reports)
  • presentations, workshops, and webinars
  • creation and presentation of events and conferences
  • projects for the community
  • helping other participants (new member outreach, mentoring)
  • administrative work to help manage the community
  • participation in work teams and committees
  • recruiting of new members

The key to Learners being active and participating is in the hands of the community leadership. In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss the Leading role.

Previous posts in the series:

Coming posts in the series:

  • 6) Roles in CoP’s Revisted: Leading