On Building Community

Recently there was a lively discussion about communities on lrnchat, a weekly tweet chat where folks from around the world have a synchronous discussion on Twitter about topics related to learning.  Check out the full transcript for the entire discussion.  The discussion began with determining the difference between communities, clubs, and collectives and quickly moved into how communities form, how they are sustained, and the pros/cons of community.

The discussion got me thinking about the communities I participate in and whether they are examples of strong communities.  One of those communities is the E-Learning Heroes community on the Articulate site.  I can say from first-hand experience, as a member of this community, that it is thriving.  I have shared and will continue to do so, but I’ve also benefited from asking and receiving answers to my questions and reading responses to other questions from the community.  Based on the points brought up in the #lrnchat discussion, I’d like to walk through ten reasons why the E-Learning Heroes site is a great example of a thriving and model community.  Oh, and just for the record, I do not now, nor have I ever worked for Articulate.  These are purely my observations as a community member and user of Articulate products.

1. Respect
First and foremost – respect.  There is an air of collegiality on the Heroes site that is very inspiring.  Unlike forums that are riddled with sarcasm, intolerance and downright nastiness, this forum has a sense of decorum.  People talk with you, not at you.  You are welcomed and addressed with respect whatever your level of experience with elearning or Articulate products.

2. Sharing
Engrained in this community is an atmosphere of sharing.  People ask questions and receive answers – usually from multiple responders.  Rather than asking a question and getting “the answer” from one person, you often receive several answers.  Sometimes they are the same answers and sometimes you get different viewpoints.  Sometimes the answer is the same, but the person adds something else.  For example, “I agree with Bob’s solution to your scenario question, but you might also want to think about [fill in the blank].”  People also share more than just answers to problems.  They share custom-built images, templates, icons, scenarios, etc.  All for the benefit of the community.  The mantra seems to be, “I came up with this asset and I’d like to make it available to anyone else who needs something similar.”

3. Community Managers Facilitators (thanks to @urbie for this)
Tom Kuhlmann, Jeanette Brooks, and David Anderson all do a superb job of feeding and tending to the community, much like a garden (thanks to @jkunrein and @janebozarth for this imagery on #lrnchat).  They have their hands on the pulse of the community, yet are not overbearing.  They don’t try to steer the community in the direction they think it should go.  They let it grow and flourish like vegetables in a garden.  They water and feed it, e.g. answering questions, offering suggestions, and providing insight, but also have the wisdom to know when something might ought to be answered in a different discussion thread.  Or when to direct a member to customer support for a technical problem.  Or when to “cross-pollinate” by suggesting a member converse with another member of the community, thereby strengthening ties within the community.

4. All for One and One for All
The forum area has two distinct sections, Building Better Courses and Articulate Product Support.  In my opinion, this in itself is a natural and proper division.  If I have a product support question, I want to be able to ask someone with knowledge of the technical aspects of the product.  I want someone who can “fix my problem” or “make it work.”  But, if I want to ask someone how they added a particular trigger or how to build a variable, I want to go to a separate section to have more of a discussion.  I don’t want to hunt and peck through a bunch of tech support questions and answers.  Having two areas makes sense.  But the funny thing about the Heroes community is that there is a constant flux between these two sections.  There are plenty of “tech” people who answer and post comments in the Building Better Courses (BBC) section and plenty of the folks in the BBC section who frequently chime in about a particular tech issue.  The great thing about this type of community participation is that it allows for diverse thinking.  The BBC person may have a different insight than the tech person and vice versa.  This breeds new ideas and fresh ways of looking at problems and solutions.

5. Dependable
It’s like those old Motel 6 radio spots said, “We’ll leave the light on for you.”  In my experience, if I post a question or issue in the forum I receive a response within twelve hours (and that’s being liberal).  Usually I receive a response from either a member, one of the community managers, or another support person within the first two-four hours of my original post.  And as I said previously, I usually receive several responses.  The community has thrived by taking care of its members.  I wasn’t there at the formation of this community, so I’m not sure how it was originally set up, but I’ll bet a lot of this was fostered by community managers.  Being in there day in and day out communicating and answering questions, modeling helpful and sustaining behavior.  This behavior was probably infectious and copied by community members until it became standard practice for everyone who participates.  Again, I’m not positive this is how it happened, but I’ll bet it was something close.

6. Empowering
I see this community empowering its members in two ways.  The first is when you sign up for an account in order to post a question or comment.  During the sign-up process, you can create a profile and add your picture or an avatar if you prefer.  There is also a section for a bio and an area to enter your personal website or blog.  How great is that for engendering community when you allow people to post links to their site for others in the community to view and connect?  The other way this community empowers its members is by granting “Super Hero” status to certain members.  When this happens, they get a little “Super Hero” bar placed under their avatar on the forum site.  I’m not privy to how a person is granted this status, but it seems to be about folks who are constantly in the community offering advice, posting comments, and helping people.  Some of it may be quantity with regards to how many times they have commented, but I don’t think that is the guiding factor.  After all, I could post 500 times, but if all I ever say is, “Great job!” or “Thanks,” that doesn’t really go toward contributing to the community.  I think it is probably more about the quality of their responses and whether or not the person asking the question found resolution or at least some ideas for moving forward.  Now based on the #lrnchat discussion on the topic of Communities, some may think this is akin to awarding a badge.  I guess it sort of is, but to me it’s more of a badge of honor than a physical patch, badge, sash, etc.  It’s a recognition to the individual that they have contributed in a lasting and meaningful way to the growth and betterment of the community.  And lest you think that they rest on their laurels when granted Super Hero status, think again.  I actually had an exchange with a recent Super Hero assignee where I commented on noticing his comments all over the forum.  He had provided answers to five or six different discussion threads within the span of an hour.  When I brought this to his attention, he modestly said, “I’m just trying to earn that Super Hero status.”

7. Encouraging and Positive
This one kind of goes along with empowerment, but it isn’t just about becoming a Super Hero in the Heroes Forums.  People are encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas about how they use Articulate.  And share they do, from templates, to graphics, to tips on faster production, to instructional design and graphic design ideas, and numerous other items.  The best part is the appreciation you receive from people when you do share.  I’ve seen countless threads where someone who is new to the forums will post a question, receive a multitude of answers or suggestions, and then because of the encouraging suggestions, turn around and post their course for others to see and review.  When people ask questions and receive kind, helpful, and often encouraging advice, they feel safe enough to share back, to contribute and become a member of the community.  More sharing means more ideas and more conversations.

8. Accountable
While people are encouraging and helpful, that doesn’t mean it’s all rainbows and unicorns.  A strong community is not afraid to question and to take people to task on an issue.  In this community people aren’t afraid (in my experience) to question someone’s statements or comments.  But it’s always respectful.  It’s not in a, “Why would you say that? That’s a stupid comment.” snarky kind of way, but in a, “Can you please explain a little more?  This is what I heard, but I may be misinterpreting what you are asking or saying.”  Usually, that type of grace-filled response then receives a clarification from the questioner and often an apology for sounding awkward, rude, or crass.

9. Accepting
The forums were created as a way for Articulate users to communicate with staff and other users about anything Articulate-related (technical issues, how-to’s, template sharing, course sharing, etc.).  But as with any strong community, the Heroes Forums allow for different points of view.  The community allows for other off-topic threads, such as discussions about freelancing or creating quick reference guides.  Rather than shutting these threads down as unrelated to Articulate, the community facilitators can be credited with allowing them to flourish.  They recognize the value in fostering communication and relationship-building.   With regard to the freelancing thread, the cool thing is it isn’t just about the ins and outs of freelancing in general.  People who participate in the thread naturally find ways to incorporate Articulate into the conversations.  That is a testament to the community and the product, that even in a spin-off conversation, people still communicate how the conversation relates to Articulate products and support.

10. Learning, not just E-Learning
The forums are great and are the key to the community, but there are also two excellent resources in the Rapid E-Learning Blog and the Word of Mouth blog and both are about sharing and making all of us better practitioners.  Plus, the community also has a great ambassador in the person of Tom Kuhlmann.  He tirelessly shares his wit and wisdom on his blog AND is constantly traveling all over the country giving excellent workshops to those new and old to elearning.  Now, I know part of that is that he is a spokesperson for Articulate and as such is selling the Articulate brand.  But, having attended one of his workshops, I can say first-hand that he is not pumping Articulate at every turn.  He is pumping learning and how people all over the world can design and develop the best learning experiences possible.  This is another example of a community that is confident and strong enough to see the big picture of Learning with a capital ‘L’ versus “learning by using our product.”

These traits have made the Articulate community what it is today: a vibrant, thriving, helpful place with over 107,000 members.  It is a place that contains a wealth of knowledge and experience in its members.  Community isn’t just about being in a group.  The Articulate community isn’t defined as “just a bunch of people who use Articulate products.”  It is made up of people from all arenas – healthcare, government, the corporate sector, the self-employed, etc.  It is made up of people who use Articulate products and who want to grow in their knowledge and application of those products – people who want to learn, share solutions, and give encouragement about the products, but also about learning in general.  It is made up of people who want to become better practitioners and provide quality learning experiences for their peers.  Respect.  Sharing.  Encouragement.  Accountability.  Empowerment.  These are the things that grow a good community.  These are the things that the E-Learning Heroes community models everyday.

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