Online communities have the answer
- By Beth Archibald Tang
- Dec 12, 2001
An example of a learning community
The immediacy of electronic communication places a premium on timely response:
The lack of it hints at inadequacy and the presence of it promotes the image
With this demand for instantaneous responses from citizens or colleagues
comes the need for knowing where to obtain reliable information. "Holding"
information is less important than knowing where to find it.
Electronic collaboration creation of a learning community is one
way to enhance responsiveness.
Using technology, people can develop virtual communities of individuals
from diverse locations. These online communities help participants respond
to issues and learn from experience. They can exist as any form of user-created
content, including message forums, live chats, or postings of reviews and
articles. Despite the medium, however, people contribute to the pool of
knowledge and select what they need from it when they need it.
Imagine a library reference room, where frequently used resources are
readily at hand. To locate a book of interest, you may need to search the
card catalog database, but the librarian is always available to answer specific
questions, and may also pull information from other reference materials
or refer you to another person. Imagine that the learning community is all
of the above.
Managing the Community
The success of an online community depends on the support and guidance
of the community manager.
Most first-time community members are unfamiliar or uncomfortable in
the online environment and do not have the normal cues to help them. They
need the experience of someone who has "been there" to help them become
experienced. Community facilitators can provide that guidance by:
* Taking an online course or joining a community.
* Getting insight from others who know what support is needed.
* Asking members why they are involved in the community.
In hosting or facilitating a learning community, also keep these guidelines
* Understand your parameters as a facilitator (know the do's and don'ts).
* Communicate the boundaries of the community's purpose (this will help
to organize online areas by topic or issue).
* Clarify expectations of members and their rights for privacy and security.
* Organize online activities and provide objectives and incentives.
In regard to the last point, learning communities need to engage members
to encourage information sharing and improve the forum's "stickiness." Members
of the community should have a reason for being there and they should feel
free to contribute. There should be some motivation, as well. This does
not mean offering prizes, but some incentive should be apparent, perhaps
in the form of a chat session with a field expert.
An agency's involvement in "media-rich" activities signals support for
collaborative endeavors. There is a benefit to this besides the advantages
of sharing information: The retention rate of employees improves noticeably
at sites that foster such community building.
Learning communities provide an opportunity to serve far-reaching audiences
and can help support the coordination of diverse groups.
And besides linking individuals in disparate settings, electronic collaboration
lowers costs and enhances responsiveness. To ensure success, however, keep
your focus on the end users and their need for timely, reliable content.
Tang is a Web producer in Northern Virginia. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.