· Comment

Unleashing the power of learning communities 

Forward-thinking organisations leverage and empower socialised learning communities, says Reimagine People Development's chief learning officer

What makes learning communities flourish?

If any organisation were destined to succeed in a groundbreaking venture, it would be NASA. As a serial innovator, NASA landed a man on the Moon, deployed a rover on Mars, launched the Hubble space telescope and co-pioneered the International Space Station. 

And yet when it came to running a learning community to support the workplace development of its thousands of scientists, engineers and partners it failed to get into orbit. Pioneered in 2009, ‘Spacebook’, NASA’s social collaborative learning venture, was decommissioned three years later with fewer than 20 daily logons.

Read more: Strategic L&D can guide the future workforce

As NASA and many organisations have discovered, social learning – acquiring knowledge, skills, and behaviours through formal or informal interactions – is challenging. Failure frequently results from a lack of leadership support, work pressures, an inadequate focus and ineffective resourcing and technologies. 

Yet, it’s the most natural way to develop. Long before courses early humans gained essential skills such as hunting through social learning depicted in ancient cave murals. And, in the natural world, numerous creatures like bees and ants rely on social learning to survive. 

The 7Cs of successful learning communities 
Delve into the success of rare effective learning communities, and you'll uncover a delicate ecosystem underpinned by seven Cs, detailed in the Organizational Learning Communities book. 

Flourishing learning communities have an energising 'cause' underlying connection. Communities loosely linked to initiatives frequently falter under everyday pressures. 

They also cultivate a positive culture, marked by psychological safety, altruism, inclusivity, and a commitment to combating bias and groupthink. Careful considerations are made for conducive conditions for effective face-to-face, digital or hybrid, and synchronous or asynchronous interactions. Equally, they have an intentional rhythm or 'cadence' of activities that are valued and embraced.

Read more: Making learning and development agile

They are consistently enriched by cutting-edge content to foster thinking and practice and employ strategies such as 'working out loud' to encourage contributions, transforming participants from passive observers to proactive leaders. And they give credit through recognition strategies, such as digital badging, and gated content and events. 

Like all successful ventures, attention to detail is crucial. 

Rich rewards through learning communities
Get the learning community DNA right, and organisations can reap rich rewards.

  • Sharing knowledge: Management guru Ken Blanchard noted: "No one of us is as smart as all of us." Knowledge management initiatives often focus on platforms not people and frequently fail, however communities enable information to be shared and applied, informing decision making and increasing performance and productivity.
  • Spearheading practice: Centuries ago, guilds were pivotal in developing skills, guiding apprentices to mastery. Today, many organisations are rediscovering the power of learning communities as catalysts for continuous improvement, shared expertise, and workplace excellence.
  • Solving problems: When the crew of the ill-fated Apollo 13 faced the life-threatening increase of CO2 in the lunar module, a small community ingeniously crafted a filter from a hotch-potch of limited resources. Learning communities are adept at solving problems by leveraging diverse perspectives and pooling intelligence.
  • Seeding innovation: Apple's iconic hi-tech 'spaceship' HQ overshadows its humble beginnings in a Menlo Park garage hosting the 'Homebrew Computer Club'. Organisational consultant Meg Wheatley highlights that "innovation arises from ongoing circles of exchange". Companies fostering learning communities tend to be more inventive through collaboration and safe spaces for experimentation.
  • Supercharging development: Typically, one-size-fits-all courses fail to address unique personal needs or career aspirations. However, learning communities empower self-directed learning that leverages intrinsic motivation, key in learning engagement, impact and transfer. 

In our world where there is an increasing challenge of losing vital human connection to artificial intelligence and wider social fragmentation, we should heed the words of the poet John Donne: "No man (or woman) is an island, entire of itself".

Read more: How HR professionals can build a culture of lifelong learning

Forward-thinking organisations prioritise human connections, interdependence over independence, and leverage and empower socialised learning communities. 

By Andy Lancaster, chief learning officer at Reimagine People Development.