The meaning of ‘community’ has changed drastically with the spread of the internet and the rise of all the social networks. No longer confined by geography, people who share the same interests can connect, share and grow as a community online. Sometimes they organize meet-ups so they get to see and talk to each other in person but often the members never get real face to face time; yet they manage to get along and develop really meaningful, long-lasting relationships.
Experts are still debating to what extent this type of being social online affects the day to day life of individuals but the reality is that virtual space has brought a really big shift in everything having to do with human interaction.
Organizational value of online communities
Organizations all over the world are making great efforts to incorporate the online aspect of both the personal and professional lives of their employees in office routines. There is special emphasis on developing communities of practice (both within the organization and outside it) to encourage the professional development of employees in a friendly, effective and non-invasive manner.
Read more: Expanding your company L&D strategy to CoPs
However, it’s a very thin line between a community focusing solely on the social aspect and one that is truly dedicated to enriching the skill and competency portfolio of its members. What L&D specialists need to understand when setting on the quest to set up professional communities of practice is that even though they may overlap with social communities, they are not the same.
Main difference between social and professional communities
Communities of practice are essentially groups of people who, for a specific subject, share a qualification, job or passion. Normally they face the same problems or challenges and seek support in handling them. Individuals make the decision to join these communities to get a better understanding of the subject, be in touch with the latest developments and learn from the experience of others. Communication and interaction are on an ongoing basis and innovation is in high demand. Figuring out new ways of doing things and addressing issues are always in high demand.
Social networks on the other hand are online groups of people who are acquainted or connected as friends, business contacts, or colleagues and use social software tools to stay in touch. By capitalizing on functions such as “follow,” “friend,” “like,” connect”, “chat”, or “subscribe”, they generate links to one another.
Communities of practice focus on a subject
Members of communities of practice are connected by their shared interest or area of expertise. They join and play an active role in communities to pitch new ideas, share their experiences and proven practices, get insights and practical suggestions.
As I have mentioned before, they mainly seek to innovate. They do so through brainstorming posts, building on the input of their peers, sharing new developments, interesting articles, interviews, conferences or podcasts.
They often reuse the solutions of others by asking and answering questions, applying shared experiences, and looking over posted material. Collaboration happens mainly through threaded discussions, and interactions. Community events that members participate in also make for a great way to improve and learn.
Social networks focus on relationship
Members of social networks are connected by friendship, work relationships and sometimes shared interest as well. The decision to add someone to one’s social network is usually a lot more casual than joining a community of practice.
Social network connections can range from very weak virtual acquaintances (I personally have quite a few people in my list that I can’t remember anything about) to very strong personal friendships or family relations. Most people click on the “accept request button” if the person asking to be added has a few connections in common with them.
Platforms normally offer the possibility to label the individuals in your list according to degrees of knowing each other and upon posting or sharing something you are asked what the allowed audience is.
Communities of practice in an organization
Aware of the difference between the two types of online communities, L&D specialists should do their best to set up and ensure the well-functioning of communities of practice within the organization.
The key to this is to not only set it up and let the members take over from there but actually manage the activity and growth of the community. Apart from one introductory meeting that all members should attend (it doesn’t have to be face to face, today’s technology allows for flawless live meetings online), there ought to be periodical such sessions in order to touch base and get some valuable feed-back.
Furthermore, having a moderator who is widely appreciated and has knowledgeable about the subjects that will be discussed is mandatory.
All in all
Regardless the size of the organization and the L&D objectives it has, online learning communities of practice can give you the competitive edge. They hold the key to tapping into the collective knowledge in order to improve employee skills and innovate.
Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.