Learning curves, we’ve all had them. Some are extremely enjoyable, exhilarating and satisfying, in other cases the ride is less pleasurable, the curve is just too steep or rocky. Over the last two years I’ve been riding the learning curve of setting up a community of practice.
I’m glad to say this curve has been enjoyable but I’ve learnt a lot and this post reflects on that learning.
In 2011 I was part of a team from NatCen Social Research, Sage Publications and the Oxford Internet Institute who launched a peer-led network for researchers using social media in their research studies. You can read more about the ‘New Social Media, New Social Science?’ network on our blog. Social scientists have been exploring digital behaviour for over twenty years, so digital research methodology is a growing but pioneering field which needs to respond swiftly to a changing technological landscape. By 2011 tools like Facebook, Twitter and You Tube were embedded into daily life and social researchers had realised that there were insights to be gleaned from the behaviours and opinions voiced on social media.
We wanted to create a reflective space where researchers could come together to learn more about how turning a sociological gaze onto social media might change or challenge our practice. Our aim was to create an enduring network of researchers who could share ideas or approaches and challenge each other to push our practice forward. Two years in, we have over 500 members worldwide and have recently handed over the reins of our main @NSMNSS Twitter account and blog to members of the community. I’ll post more about the fascinating things we’ve learnt about doing social media research later but in this post I want to focus on building the learning community.
“Communities of practice (CoP) are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Etienne Wenger: 2007)
They utilise the power of social and experiential learning to develop shared skills, cultures and values; new practices, techniques and tools; alternative models of thinking and novel approaches to persistent challenges. Widely used for continuing professional development the model was well suited to the goals of our network around facilitating shared learning and knowledge exchange. Communities of practice use a range of learning and development strategies to share ideas and we aimed to create a similar blend of activities.
We were lucky enough to receive funding from NCRM in our first year which paid for a series of face-to-face events but most network activity needed to happen online. Luckily, social media have extended the field of play for communities of practice. Tools like Twitter, Facebook, Ning and blogging tools can be used now to support community activities and enable members to participate in synchronous and asynchronous discussions of their practice and we set out to make full use of these social tools.
Being active online was critical in building and maintaining our network it helped us keep network discussions moving, engage participants who could not attend the face-to-face events and build a network that drew in researchers from around the world. We started out with a Twitter account, You Tube channel, Blogger account and Methodspace group (Methodspace is a Ning community platform for social scientists run by Sage).
So what did our learning curve teach us?
- Engagement 101: keep it simple. Get creative, come up with a catchy, short name for your community! Our name spelt out what we were exploring but it was a mouthful and I can’t think of a single event when someone hasn’t tripped over it, even the acronym NSMNSS doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.
- Building a visually engaging, easy to use platform is critical for developing an online community. Find the right platform to act as the hub of your network, then create spindles from that to provide a richer source of resources and engagement points as needed. We started with too many platforms which diluted their impact and confused new members. As our community developed, activity crystallised around our Twitter account and blog, and our dialogue was tighter as a result.
- It’s hard work and takes more time than you’ll anticipate. New networks need the active involvement of ‘community gardeners’ or ‘facilitators’ to ensure that engagement is sustained and the content, connections and community are nurtured. People do come if you build it (and promote it) but they won’t stay unless you give them a reason to. You need to be there to keep conversations moving, help new members find their way around and encourage existing members to contribute.
- This sounds obvious but it’s important to think about your community and who they are. Ask them regularly what they want. We used quick Survey Monkey polls and tweeted questions, as well as Doodle polls and other tools to find out about people’s interests and context. Our developing network was global, spread across several time zones, so we had to be mindful of when we ran online activities and take care to create asynchronous resources for learning outwith the live events and debates. We also had to consider cultural and legal differences which might affect the experiences of network members in different regions.
- Actively involve your members, otherwise you’ll end up broadcasting at them. We found this frustrating initially until we learned how to entice members out of their watching mode. Early on we invited member blogs from researchers but a critical breakthrough came when we introduced a regular Twitter chat. This created energy in the community, drew people in and provided volunteers for more structured learning sessions. We recruited members to present case studies of their research, share their experiences of the tools & methods they had used at ‘how to’ sessions and take part in Q&A sessions. This meant the agenda was built from the members up and that we sometimes needed to review our own assumptions and ideas about the direction of the community which was no bad thing.
- You don’t have to be an island. Reach out to related communities, cast about for groups and networks with similar or related interests, see if you can support one another. We ran co-hosted events with related groups including the PhD forum #socphd which opened our network to new audiences and widened the voices heard in our discussions. Reciprocity is key in building online connections so we tried to remember to give back by RTing and promoting our fellow networks’ news and shares. You can also learn a lot from how other unrelated communities operate. NSMNSS owes a debt of gratitude to the #cht2lrn community who showed us the way around Twitter chats and set a great example of member led community learning.
- Try to make the walls of your network porous. Think about who’s missing, be open and inclusive to avoid becoming an echo chamber (thanks to @sukhpabiel for reminding me of this) where members repeat the same points and discussions with one another without ever hearing dissenting voices or alternative perspectives. It’s been fantastic to have researchers from the arts & humanities, physical sciences & computing involved in the community, this has really helped us to understand how social media research is breaking through disciplinary boundaries. But we’ve been acutely aware that our community is low on members from the social media industry and we know this has limited our learning, we’re still trying to reach them so if you happen to know anyone at Google, Twitter or Facebook do let them know about us!
- Establish a rhythm for the community, do things at regular intervals so that the community knows when things are happening. We found it helpful to run a Twitter chat before an event to rehearse the issues and set the themes for debate, we ran guest blogs & published transcripts of the chats to spark thoughts before the event. On the day we live tweeted events, streamed or videoed speakers, and then followed up by posting those resources and event blogs. Members liked the rhythm of familiar activities and having a rhythm means you can mix it up when things are flagging and need an injection of energy.
- On that note, try new things and experiment, they won’t all work but that’s OK. we hadn’t planned to run Twitter chats but we decided to give it a whirl after people picked up the hashtag #NSMNSS to share resources and build connections. After the first few agonising moments when we thought we were tweeting into a black hole (if you’ve ever run one you’ll know that feeling!) the format took off and we ended up running regular, themed chats.
Above all, remember to enjoy it, a buzzing group of members sharing ideas and learning from one another whether in real time or online is a hugely satisfying moment to be involved in. How does this compare to your own experiences of building or participating in communities of practice, I’d love to hear your views?