Starting an Online Community

There are several factors that should be looked at when creating a collaborative working/learning space. I’ve previously referred to Column Two’s three tiers of collaboration – Capacity, Capability & Strategy and it’s a good model to start with. Part of capacity are the existing processes and culture of collaboration while capability includes the best tools for the job. It’s not easy for a group of individuals, who do not know each other, to work collaboratively from the onset. It is even more difficult to ask that this collaboration occur online when the participants are not in the habit of working on the Internet. The practice of sharing needs to be joined with the tools that work for the culture. Finally, strategy includes the leadership, direction and project management of getting things going to work collaboratively online.

It’s important to get participants/members first used to processing their information flow online. A framework such as Personal Knowledge Mastery can be used, but each person must be given time to practice, connect and get feedback. The community also needs to be nurtured, one relationship at a time, as the creators of Flickr realized:

A lot of our success came from George, the lead designer, and Caterina. Both of them spent a lot of time in the early days greeting individual users as they came in, encouraging them and leaving comments on their photos. There was a lot of dialogue between the people who were developing Flickr and their users to get feedback on how they wanted Flickr to develop. That interaction made the initial community very strong and then that seed was there for new people who joined to make the community experience strong for them too.

Because culture is slow to change I would recommend starting with the simplest tool-set possible. Turn off most functions and only enable new ones when people start asking for more. As with tools, the same minimization principle goes for content. It is more important to build relationships and to draft the right people than it is to build the best content. Community trumps content online. Therefore, the focus should be on building connections.

A model we used for a CoP prototype (the first of several to be implemented on a variety of ‘topics’) was based on these roles in the core team:

Process Lead (Communities) – Stays current on online communities, evaluates progress, helps members with knowledge-sharing, develops processes and records progress.

Recruiter (Early Adopter) – Identifies and connects with other potential Early Adopters.

Recruiter (Maven) – Identifies subject areas of interest to the community and finds knowledge or human resources.

Technical Lead – Identifies technologies and ensures that the community has the right tools.

Topic Lead – The ‘go-to’ person on all questions relating to implementation. This person is supported by the other core team members.

10 Responses to “Starting an Online Community”

  1. Ken Allan

    Kia ora Harold!

    I go along with what you say about ‘one relationship at a time’. This is so true. There’s not a lot of research findings available on this, but a year ago I did some scraping around and came up with enough to give me a clear picture of how it was in the ‘olden-days’ of online community growing.

    By all accounts, what was successful in those days is still successful today – at least that’s what I’ve found, and you’re saying it here.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  2. Chris

    I’m curious as to whether you have any preferences with specific online learning community environments. We’re comparing Ning, Facebook and other existing options. Any thoughts? Our main goal is to build an online community for gardeners and some of the primary concerns for us are around ease of access to the environment, i.e. login, familiarity of conventions and whether keeping the community closed as opposed to open has any real benefit.

  3. Harold Jarche

    Some thoughts, Chris:

    Easy set-up – Ning
    Ease of Use & Familiarity – Facebook

    BUT: Controlling your content/data – Elgg or some other open source system

    Other platforms to consider – Drupal, WordPress multi-user, SocialGo, and many others

    I have no preferences as it depends on what is best for the context (people, technology, constraints & regulations, budget)

  4. Beth Chmielowski

    Harold, thanks for a simple yet practical post on how to get communities started. Some additional tactics to help get the ball rolling and to drive adoption might include:

    • Identifying current go-to people (similar to your recruiter/mavens) and working with them to mine their emails and hard drives to help seed the initial content

    • Integrating the community into relevant formal training offerings

    • Setting up a cross-generational mentorship program (especially for businesses on the verge of losing the knowledge and skills of a retiring workforce):

    o Pair younger workers with baby boomers as a two-way mentorship: baby boomers provide OJT experience and insight; younger workers provide tutorial on using the community and technologies

    o Have younger workers own the knowledge capture from the baby boomers during their mentoring sessions, and post it to the portal

    o Have baby boomers rate and comment on the information that has been captured

  5. Christine

    In response to the question above about which toolset to consider, you might also check out Helpstream – they have a free community platform available


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