In a 2017 Brandon Hall survey, only one-third of participating organizations had a defined knowledge-sharing strategy. For 72 percent of organizations, email was the most common method for knowledge-sharing, while 30 percent had no forums or communities in which to ask questions and share ideas. No wonder only 20 percent believed that their knowledge-sharing efforts were effective.

Knowledge-sharing is only one of the benefits of developing and sustaining a vibrant learning community and culture across your organization. When it forms a core element of the overall learning and development experience, not only does it accelerate the adoption of new behaviors, skills and knowledge in individuals, but it also does so across the organization. No matter the size of your organization, you probably have to accommodate virtual team-working. Developing and sustaining an active and engaged learning community is, therefore, essential to ensuring that your organization remains coordinated and agile, responds well to change, and so can remain competitive in fast-changing and uncertain market conditions.

How Do You Start?

The first characteristic of a learning community is that it can come in many different shapes and sizes, and the focus and style of interaction will vary depending on your audience characteristics and corporate culture. With that said, a learning community is typically described as a place where people engage in a shared learning process, with common interests and motivations to improve their performance in a particular way. This community is facilitated by an online platform, either your LMS or closely integrated with it, that provides ways to share, collaborate and network across existing organizational silos. The platform provides a quick and easy way to find relevant resources, shared best practices and access structured learning programs.

With a learning community established and a social learning-first engagement model in place, employees are free to direct themselves to the answers and support they need at the time they need it and opt in to formal learning where appropriate.

Typical Components of a Learning Community

For a learning community to work, there needs to be regular and valued interaction among members. To achieve and sustain this interaction, the learning community platform should offer the following functional components:

  • Easy theming and branding to reflect your own organizational identity and culture
  • Simple single sign-on (SSO) so there are no login barriers to access
  • Discussion forums with the ability to thread, moderate and promote responses
  • Member profiles that share interests and skills that could be of value to others across the organization
  • Search functionality that can surface relevant information
  • Content management and curation tools that make it easy for members to create and point to information and knowledge of value
  • Deep integration with formal learning programs and resources so the community becomes a foundational component of blended learning and provides the segue to putting the learning into practice in the workplace
  • Activity tracking and reporting to identify trends and provide the metrics by which to nurture and shape the community over time

Launching the Learning Community

Make sure you take the time to carefully research your audience. As you talk to the people you want to attract to the platform, you will probably notice that you have several audiences and that there are often identifiable internal influencers whom others already turn to for support. Gain the early support of these influencers, and involve them in shaping and launching the community. Others will follow.

Rome was not built in a day, and nor will your learning community. Start small and nurture mini successes. This might mean focusing on a particular location, region or department where the readiness to share and collaborate already exists. As the community evolves, keep it fresh by seeding it with new resources and content on a regular basis.

Incentivize participation and contribution; digital badges work well as a motivational device, but peer recognition is most powerful. Identify what resonates most with your audience and culture. You can also reward referrals, which will help spread the word and encourage members to be active. Remember that metrics matter, so ensure you can monitor how people are engaging with the community to identify what’s popular as well as any bumps in the user experience that might be preventing engagement.

Sustaining the Learning Community

When your community is up and running, how do you keep going? First of all, listen to your audience, and let them lead you to the topics and issues important to them. You will also need to moderate, conduct and guide them in line with the business strategy and direction of your organization. Make sure that the platform doesn’t become hard to use or bogged down with old content. Treat it like a garden – it will need pruning and watering.

Spot conversations and shared information that are evidence of good practices, and point other parts of the community to where they can be of value. Equally, spot the sharing of bad practices – they may need nipping in the bud but can also point you to a training need. Pain-point discussions can also reveal targets for training investments that will have maximum impact, but stay vigilant: Training isn’t always the right answer; it could be a process, system or management issue that needs improvement. Either way, the learning community is pointing the way. Remember that ideas, once shared, become powerful sources of innovation for your organization and can be the differentiation needed to survive and thrive in a highly competitive environment.

Reaping the Benefits

A successful learning community helps an organizational culture become more open. Working out loud is learning out loud, and open collaboration breaks down barriers and facilitates innovation and creative problem-solving. In many ways, a learning community is essential to delivering continuous performance improvement and embedding it within the organizational DNA.

It’s time to move your business out of the 70 percent that don’t have any form of learning community collaboration. Failing to do so could be fatal.