Author: Dimauro, Vanessa
Date published: June 1, 2011
There is a wonderful Swahili proverb about teamwork and the value of relationships that says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." This adage is especially true for those who are seeking to advance their knowledge or accelerate their professional skills. Indeed, this is one of the reasons professional organizations such as SLA exist.
Since 1876, when the American Library Association (ALA) was founded (Holley 1975), library professional associations have focused on increasing their members' skills and efficiency and providing access to information. Members gathered at meetings to discuss best practices in cataloging and other areas, but naturally they exchanged more information and ideas than were indicated by the day's agenda. They came together to discuss the details of their profession within a learning environment dedicated to advancing their skills and knowledge. This is the foundational difference between a general group of colleagues and a professional community (either online or offline), as the latter share a purpose and context for their collaboration and idea exchanges.
Gathering and connecting with peers to share information and best practices - either in person, virtually or both - continue to be key rationales today for participating in a professional association. The difference is that today's associations can take advantage of unique benefits offered by the information technology and communication revolutions we now call Web 2.0 and social media. Traditional person-to-person networks and peer groups will never disappear, but they are being enhanced by new forms of knowledge exchange that offer better support for professional collaboration.
Three Key Fundamentals
It's worth noting that online communities have been around for a while, although the current media attention to this topic would make you think otherwise. Professional online communities have existed ever since ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, was designed by researchers affiliated with the U.S. Department of Defense in the late 1960s, well before the advent of the World Wide Web. Scientists soon began using electronic messaging to collaborate and communicate around the globe, and shortly afterward a number of online communities sprang up to support science and technology education.
Online communities have also been a key part of the academic world for more than 20 years (Howe n.d.). In fact, librarians are often cited as being among the earliest adopters of the Internet and online communities. However, the explosive growth of online activity over the last 10 to 15 years has been driven by the development of collaborative tools that are more useable and, frankly, more engaging for those who lack deep technical skills.
Today there is widespread adoption of online communities, and professional organizations are leading the way in this area for a number of compelling reasons. For these communities to be effective, however, three key fundamentals must be in place:
* The power to convene;
* An engaged group of peers who need to collaborate on substantive topics of interest; and
* A thought leadership position or cause the group is advancing.
These criteria represent the very essence of a professional association and are the reason most professional organizations succeed when they extend their existing in-person community services into the online space. Consider the many benefits a professional association's online community can offer to its members:
Greater access to peers across geographic and time constraints. Too often, our peer-to-peer networks are constrained by proximity - those you know or with whom you interact most frequently tend to be those who are physically closest to you. Through online communities, professionals now have the ability to find and interact with specialists or like-minded peers across the country or around the world.
A powerful channel for sharing ideas. MIT organizational behaviorist Don Schon (1984) wrote a great deal about the important role of reflective practice in professional knowledge exchange. Online message exchanges, such as those found in forums, encourage thoughtful, written collaboration. Using online professional collaboration, practitioners are able to shape their ideas more richly and reflect upon the concepts and ideas they are sharing. The act of writing creates documentation that helps further professional exchanges and enables the sharing of multiple opinions in ways that face-to-face groups often cannot provide.
Contextual information exchange. The ability to link to or embed information and other resources found on the Web enables online communities to be more relevant than physical ones. Not only can we take an online course or access a resource online, but via an online community we can engage in the interplay of ideas that occurs around information, which is the lifeblood of knowledge creation.
Online Community Models
In addition to enabling peer-to-peer networking and idea exchanges, there are many reasons why a professional organization might create online communities. Some build online communities to advance their thought-leadership position, some to service their members by providing access to online tools and information, and some to generate revenue by offering products and services to their members online. Whatever the reasons, the community model must effectively support the goals for the community.
There are three general models for online communities: information dissemination, shop talk and professional collaboration. While these models are not mutually exclusive - elements of each are found in many successful online communities - each model offers a primary set of objectives and outcomes for the community. Most professional organizations face a philosophical choice about the community model they use: to reach a wide audience to support a tactical or just- in-time information exchange, or to create a relatively private, even closed community to support deeper professional collaboration and engagement.
Information dissemination communities. The first type of online community, the Information Dissemination Model, is where the organizing body creates the content and messages, thus shaping the direction of the community. One example is WhiteHouse.gov, which offers the public an interactive space. On WhiteHouse.gov there are feedback forms, polls, videos, and an opportunity to follow information on Twitter and LinkedIn to encourage participation. The site has some collaborative elements available, but the primary goal and mission are to share information and disseminate it outward.
Some associations use information dissemination as a tool to encourage indirect collaboration. For example, a few associations have chosen to leverage aspects of their online communities in combination with their public face to gather information about their membership, solicit opinions through polls, and allow feedback on topics such as public policy or regulations without taking on the sizable task of managing large-scale interactivity and collaboration. The National Association of School Psychologists site (www.nasponline.org) is one example.
Shop talk communities. The second type of online community is the Shop Talk Model, where discussion groups focus on accomplishing a task, exchanging transactional information, or getting answers to questions such as "How can I do this?" or "Where can I find that?" The associations that adopt this model often use their communities to provide access to resources and materials, information pertaining to the running of the organization, and "howtos" that help the professional membership solve daily problems.
For example, the Project Management Institute (www.pmi.org/en/Get-lnvolved/Communities-of-Practice.aspx) is a large industry association that supports and certifies project managers around the world. Its online community plays a central role in helping members connect with each other and share the details of their practice. From industryspecific discussion groups to a private, members-only directory of PMI professionals, this community services the needs of the association's members on many levels.
Members of shop talk communities may visit and interact on an as-needed basis, and while they have ongoing relationships with their peers in the communities, it's often not very deep or longstanding. Members use the community to solve a burning problem or issue - a "collaborate and evaporate" experience. This model is well-suited for large groups of professionals, since there is always a resource available to meet almost every need.
Shop Talk communities can help an organization learn about important trends and issues among its members. This could lead to service innovations, fixes for prevailing problems, and tools to allow members to help each other, thus reducing staff burdens.
Professional collaboration communities. The Professional Collaboration Model is the third community type. As a rule, these communities are smaller and less visible than their information dissemination and shop talk counterparts. They are safe and somewhat private online spaces designed to foster conversation and longer-term collaboration. They tend to be membership-driven or subscription-based, and they consist of members who meet on an ongoing basis to gain professional knowledge within a given specialty.
An example of this type of model is the Palladium Group's Execution Premium Community-XPC (www.thepalladiumgroup.com/communities/xpc/Pages/Welcome.aspx). This is a community of strategy professionals who are sharing information and best practices about the art and science of developing and executing strategies. While this community is tied to a commercial endeavor - the Palladium Group sponsors it- it is very similar to an association in that the members are at the helm of the content and thought leadership agenda. Client retention, brand management, thought leadership and deeper awareness of products and services are the objectives for this community.
Professional collaboration communities come in all shapes and sizes, from professional peer groups to client communities to those driven by news or information, But they all have a shared vision - to connect people over time and enable them to share ideas and experiences.
A Living Library
All three of these community types have a role to play. Although each has a different set of metrics, goals, outcomes and revenue models, they all contribute to the current and future readiness of an association's members on two levels. First and most important, they offer associations the ability to help members make and sustain peer-to-peer connections to meet specific needs, No longer does proximity suffice for relevance; now, the full strength of an association's membership base can be extended to create a learning and networking environment that's available 24/7.
Second, they enable experienced professionals to learn the skills of online collaboration alongside their younger colleagues. These skills, and the ability to leverage them to encourage professional collaboration, will serve all association members well into the future.
In sum, professional association members with access to an online community will find it much easier to become "future ready." They will have access to their peers, find resources and engage in dialogues about topics that matter to them on a just-in-time basis. They will also be able to find and collaborate with like-minded colleagues on a 1:1 basis or in small group settings, while at the same time sharing their ideas and receiving feedback across a wide cross-section of their profession. In many ways, online communities bring new meaning to the idea of a living library.
Holley, Edward G. 1975. The Role of Professional Associations in a Network of Library Activity, in Library Trends, - ideals.illinois.edu
Howe, Walt. n.d. A Brief History of the Internet. Web page. Accessed at http://www.walthowe.com/navnet/history.html.
Schon, Don. 1984. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. New York: Basic Books.
VANESSA DIMAURO is chief executive officer of Leader Networks, a research and strategy consulting company that helps large organizations succeed in social business and business-to-business online community building. She can be reached at vdimauroŽ@leadernetworks.com.