Most of us want active communities in our training programs. We know the power of participation in developing skills and changing behavior. Passive training programs are not just boring; they’re ineffective. For people to learn, they need to do, create, ask, discover, share, get feedback and try again.

When we turn to technology-based training, we can make the mistake of thinking the technology itself will somehow create community. But just because we type questions into a widget capable of handling learner exchanges doesn’t mean rich conversation will follow.

Imagine you’re throwing a party. You invite an interesting, eclectic group of people. You gather your favorite magazines and curate your DVR. Your guests arrive, you display your collections … and you leave. How long do you think they’ll stay? What conversations will result? And how will they respond to your next invitation? If you wouldn’t use this approach in your home, you might not want to use it online, either.

No matter where or how we gather, lively communities require three elements:

  • A quorum: We need enough people who care about and want to collaborate on the same things.
  • Semi-synchronicity: We need several people together at roughly the same time.
  • Exigence: We need to surface the questions they cannot stop talking about and the issues they need to work on.

The elements are co-dependent; take away one, and the whole community falls apart.

At your party, let’s say you queued up a show on your DVR. A few people would likely gather around to watch it. Let’s say two of them are fans and one is new to the program. The fans gravitate toward each other and start a conversation. The newbie listens and watches for a while but soon asks a question, to which the fans respond. Someone nearby overhears and adds her two cents. The community grows organically because:

  • You have enough people who already know about or are interested in the program (quorum).
  • They are in the same place at the same time (synchronicity).
  • Those two fans couldn’t stop themselves from talking about the program, and their enthusiasm is contagious, at least among those with similar interests (exigence).

So, how do you use these three elements to form active online learning communities?

1. Quorum

Find some ringers. Requisition one or more moderators who care deeply about the topic and are good at (or can be trained in) fostering conversation. You don’t want people who are merely answering questions. Answers are often conversation-stoppers, not starters. You want moderators to draw interesting connections between your content and learners’ day-to-day needs in ways that spark new questions and ideas.

If you don’t have official moderators, mine your target audience to find some advocates: people like those fans at the party who cannot stop themselves from talking about your topic. Confirm their interest and that they have time to participate, and then offer them the opportunity to stand out as a leader and coach, or offer more tangible rewards like coffee gift cards or lunch with a respected executive.

Work with the numbers you have. How many active participants do you need to form a quorum? It varies, but the non-numeric answer is, “Enough to keep the community generating the learning needed to achieve your training and business goals.”

Say you have 500 learners. When they first enter the program, the collaboration spaces only have starter posts from your moderators (yes, you need starter posts). If just 2 percent of your learners (10 people) start posting in a discussion, it can look lively enough to draw in more people.

If you have only 50 learners, you now need 20 percent of them to participate to generate the same level of liveliness. When you have a small audience, your moderators need to be more active (at least at the beginning), and timing and exigency are even more important.

2. Semi-Synchronicity

Impose time limits. Online learning should be available anytime; that’s one of its hallmarks. But community requires people to come together at roughly the same time, and technology is shortening our sense of time. People used to write letters and wait days for replies. Now, we text and IM because phone and email take too long. If you drop a question into the cloud, how long will you wait for a response?

Training programs need to gather learners into collaboration at roughly the same time. In an in-person workshop, you wouldn’t let each person choose the time for a small group break-out. Online communities need clearly communicated “time guardrails,” too (e.g., “Post your work by Friday” or, “Get your questions in at least a day before…”).

Find meaningful deadlines. Time limits cannot be entirely random. Smart learners can spot and ignore a false deadline. Tie your program to cycles in the business, like preparing for a busy season or an upcoming milestone that matters to your learners. If you don’t have that ability, try to offer the program more than once, letting learners opt in to the one that suits their schedule.

3. Exigency

Know your audience. If you’ve never been around them when they’re socializing, start “stalking.” You need to find out what work issues they talk about even when they’re not working. If you can’t easily observe them in their natural habitat, talk with some of your learners or their managers, peers or assistants – anyone who can describe what matters most to them. Your learners will engage when you tap in to what they care about and then connect those interests to your program.

Spark exchanges. It sounds easier than it is: When most of us draft questions meant to foster collaboration, our first attempts fall into one of two categories: either quiz-style questions (the kind that have a right answer) or vague questions like, “What did you think?” Neither of those types of questions leads to rich conversation.

Your prompts need to generate emotion and tap into issues your audience needs to resolve. Conversation, especially virtual conversation, is an art. Expect to re-write your prompts a few times, and recruit people similar to your audience to help you.

Once you get your quorum together semi-synchronously with exigent questions, sit back and enjoy the party!