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Social Learning through Communities : Are we wasting time?

Definition of COMMUNITY (


: a unified body of individuals: as a : state, commonwealth b : the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly : the area itself <the problems of a large community> c : an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location d : a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society <a community of retired persons> e : a group linked by a common policy f : a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests <the international community> g : a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society <the academic community>


: society at large


a : joint ownership or participation <community of goods> b : common character : likeness <community of interests> c : social activity : fellowship d : a social state or condition

It’s clear that an online community should have the above mentioned traits and characteristics - and one word that stands out is 'Common' and that forms the base of every online community as well. Be it learning, sharing, receiving, collaborating, or aiming  - everything needs to be common.  In my conversations with other Social learning Leaders, stress appeared on very intriguing fundamentals of an online community and what struck me most are penned down here - others may add more.

How it helps the business?

The fact is that the measure of a community's value to the stakeholders' is very contextual and should not govern the overall working of a community. Community is aimed at collaboration and let it be - the measurement or value doesn’t work everywhere. What needs to be looked at is who is there? Are the right people engaged? Is the focus at the right level?

One pitfall to avoid is the broader the domainless value we gain (members and creators). Lurkers, though they may not add value, are good to be there however community managers should focus on active members.

Now all said and done - the community has members and they are talking, connecting, meeting online through virtual tools or using simple audio bridges; the question remains - Is there any Social Learning happening? Can Social Learning be a dependable source for organizations? How do we quantify Social Learning?

Let’s sit back and think of buying a new house in a gated society of 1000 flats/apartments. What will be your first step? – To gain more information about the builder, the place, the amenities, local dependencies and most importantly what the present owners have to say. Collecting information and knowledge from others is Social learning for you – although it’s not structured, but yes it exists and every one of us uses it every day.

Learning through community exists where:

  • Everybody :
    • produces content
    • shares the knowledge
    • gains knowledge by leveraging the cumulative knowledge base of the members
  • Domain experts give back and create reputation for themselves
  • New entrants assimilate lucidly and consume through the collection
  • Every member gains a Digital Identity.

A community of Sellers of an organization, based on geography and product line, can help get quick and relevant information without re-inventing the wheel – Which area is breeding new companies? What is the new local law? Is there a better way to position the product?

One hour spent every week on collaboration can save loads of effort and time. Now suddenly all sellers are equally aware of the entire region and have started learning from one another. There is greater camaraderie and all teams are working as One TEAM– isn’t that what organization wanted?

Measuring Social Learning

The quantification of social learning has always been an elusive dreamscape for community managers and stakeholders. While methods exist to measure the number of members, posts, blogs and thread trails, effective learning is subjective and essentially depends on the individual (remember: communities bring the learner to the learning).

The assessment can be done only at an individual level and insofar as it reflects on the community, the value of the community improves. In a survey conducted for over 2200 GTS Employees in July 2007, it was found that 87% of IBMers collaborating with others in communities increase their skills while 74% increase their productivity. Source

Broadly, according to a report on Community Health Index published by Lithium Technologies, Inc., the characteristics of healthy communities and their corresponding health factors are:

  • Growth = Number of Members
  • Usefulness = Content of relevance
  • Popularity = Traffic on the community
  • Responsiveness = the speed at which community members respond (time lag)
  • Interaction = based on topic Interaction
  • Liveliness = results in more traffic

Social Learning through communities is one way learning will happen, but it will not replace the other forms of learning – e.g. ILT (Instructor-led Training) WBT (Work based Training), e-learning etc.

We need all types of learning mediums - ILT, WBT, e-learning/online and Social Learning. None can replace the other, however usage will be defined by the scope, audience, cost, urgency etc. Every medium has its fun and follies - and that's why a combination is always a better approach. Let’s not trade cars for bikes or pizza for burgers - we need all.

To think of it, you would have never read this had we never ventured into social learning! Happy Learning :-)

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