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How to Build and Lead Successful Online Communities: What makes a community a community?

By Nic Laycock / January 2012

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I want to welcome you to this, the first of a series of articles exploring a question that is important for all of us involved in L&D: "How do you build successful online communities?" In the series I hope to provide some answers from my own experience as well as listen to others grappling with the high rate of failure of communities to which we either belong or we create.

A failed community is an opportunity lost. Worse, it is a negative that will far outweigh any positives derived from an online community that succeeds. Why? Because a community implies relationship, and a failed relationship is always painful. It seems not to matter whether that pain is amongst those closely involved or those who looked to that community for assistance, guidance, a way forward, or a business benefit. It is painful and that hurts. Hurt means reaction, which can have all kinds of consequences in an organization and for its L&D function. Failure of relationship heightens emotion and at an organizational level often leads to blame fixing. But before we go further let's take a brief look at how this series of posts will pan out:

  • "What's the Difference Between a Community and a Network?" Exploring issues of commitment, engagement and retention in relation to purpose.
  • "Communities Are About People" How to treat each other with respect and sensitivity with all that entails.
  • "Getting Started with a Learning Community" Ideas for what to look out for obstacles, planning for success, and preparing for hard work ahead.
  • "Don't Manage it, Lead it!" Why the "M" word is from an old mindset; and the skills needed to lead successful online communities.
  • "Where Next?" Transforming learning communities into ongoing centers of excellence for our organizations; and championing learning to leverage it as a business driver.

So what makes a community a community? A recent session on #lrnchat asked that question. Responses almost universally referred to a community having some sort of common direction—not a common goal, that is too specific—a commonality that takes everyone involved in the same direction. But there is a little more to it than that. Alongside that feeling of a common journey was an experience of mutuality between people. So for the #lrnchat group a community has a real human dimension. Later in this series we will look at how this can be achieved in online communities where there is no chance of us using some of our key senses to aid our journeying together.

I am often asked about the real fundamentals of communities. Why do they seem to be so important? The answer is very simple. Just as learning is fundamental to our humanity, so is community. Lord Robert Winston (Emeritus Professor of Medicine at University College London), speaking to the Institute of Professional Development about the impact of the Internet on our learning and our lives, commented that the Internet and all that goes with the social media have created a new dimension in our lives. For the first time in the history of the human race we now have an ability to communicate with an almost unlimited, and unimaginable, number of people of whom we have no knowledge. We have moved from family groups, tribes, and all the various structures that throughout our evolution have brought us together, into a world where there are no given boundaries.

Our human nature is social; we need interaction with others for safety, support, advancement, and self-fulfillment. So the concept of community is critical to our understanding of community in our online world. Without it isolation and feelings of being alone and lost are likely to surface, particularly amongst those who struggle to join the communication revolution. Those who are older and have not grown up with the Internet, and those who battle with both the technology and how to communicate in its very different way, are in many cases the people who will have a say about whether our work in developing communities and in transforming learning is supported or rejected. But there are also the young who have come into a world in which text is the medium, where do they learn about the concepts of community that will be a major part of their lives?

In building online communities we have to be aware of our duty to engender those feelings of belonging, allow people to express their concerns and frustrations, and find ways of rewarding intangible and across the planet.

In my next article, I will look at the differences between a true community and the many other ways in which we come together and interact in our cyber world.

About the Author

Nic Laycock blogs at Nic's Discoveries and can be found on Twitter @alc47.


  • Wed, 11 Jan 2012
    Post by James McLuckie

    It's really encouraging that the #lrnchatters took such an expansive view of the concept of 'community'.

    I examined a few definitions of community last year for a research project. The variation was quite extraordinary, but the common themes that emerged were interesting (and offer a solid insight into what makes an effective 'community'): sense of attachment, connection and belonging; use of common symbols; regular communication between members; common purpose; shared space, rituals and effort; fulfilment of needs.

  • Tue, 10 Jan 2012
    Post by Kelly Meeker

    I heard a really interesting interview with the author Susan Orlean on NPR last night - she talked about how she uses Twitter to capture the feeling of being in an office, surrounded by people, when she's working by herself in her house in the country. She said twitter had helped her build a network of supporters, peers and colleagues that strengthened her focus and expanded her ideas. That's why communities matter!