Strategies for Collaborative Learning

Creating Communities for Collaboration and Learning
Soren Kaplan, Managing Director, iCohere, Inc.
Peter Bartlett, e-Community Organizer, Hewlett-Packard

Most learning professionals today agree that "community" represents an increasingly important trend in eLearning, blended learning, and ultimately, organizational learning. The challenge is that the meaning of "community" has become ambiguous. Communities come by many names – learning communities, knowledge communities, e-communities, corporate communities, and communities of practice, among others. In addition, the concept is often further diluted through being equated to technology such as discussion boards, chat rooms, etc.

The argument for building communities usually goes something like this: since about 70% of what an employee needs to know is learned outside of formal training programs (e.g., on the job, through informal

mentoring, through networks of personal relationships, etc.), and since organizations are increasingly reliant on distributed groups of employees and partners to get work done, a new approach for enabling learning and collaboration is now required. For learning professionals, the question usually isn't whether building communities will benefit the organization, but rather what kind of community is appropriate and what are the steps involved in building it.

According to Webster's Dictionary, a community is "any group living in the same area or having interests, work, etc. in common." While the geographic assumption underlying this definition may no longer be valid, one thing is clear: communities can be small or large, co-located or online, and often possess similar structures and characteristics – their members interact together over time, are held together by a common purpose, possess distinct roles, rely on trust as the basis of their interactions, and share a sense of history.



In our work as community-builders, consultants, and as learning professionals, we have seen four types of collaborative groups that relate to the strategic objectives and responsibilities of many typical training functions (our model assumes the broadest definition of the learning professional role, including stand-up trainer, eLearning architect, and organizational development consultant). While by no means mutually exclusive, these four groups represent people who come together primarily for any one of four distinct reasons:

  • to affiliate (affinity networks)
  • to learn (learning communities)
  • to practice (communities of practice)
  • to take action (project teams)
These groups vary in their orientations toward relationship, learning, and task– all communities include each, though their emphases vary. Affinity networks tend to be the most relationship focused since their existence is predicated primarily on the common personal attributes and preferences of its members. Learning communities are focused on a specific learning outcome, with relationship and task a necessary part of achieving the learning outcome. Communities of practice represent a relatively equal mix of relationship, learning, and task orientation while project teams are predominantly task oriented, though relationships and learning are indeed important for bonding the team together.


Affinity Networks

Affinity networks are groups of people who are drawn together based on one or more shared personal attributes. Their activities are highly relationship oriented, and typically include networking, mentoring, and representing a collective voice in both organizational and external community affairs. While some organizations formally acknowledge and sponsor these groups' activities, when they don't, these networks often emerge on their own. Employee clubs are notable examples. Other examples include "employee associations", like at Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), which sponsors five employee groups including the Asian, Black, Filipino, Hispanic, and Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual associations. As a strategy to strengthen communications among and between employees and customers, PG&E supports these groups as they volunteer as translators in crises, raise scholarship money for women and minorities, participate in community outreach, and contribute to PG&E's diversity programs.

Learning Communities

Learning communities are the most closely connected to traditional training. They represent communities of learners that may rely on face-to-face and/or online interactions to share experiences, stories, network, and learn from each other over time. For trainers and eLearning professionals, learning communities are one of the best opportunities to create "blended solutions" that move learning beyond the classroom. Often facilitated by a trainer or consultant, these groups may come together both prior to and after a face-to-face event. The online community provides "context" prior to the event and then allows for mentoring, collaboration, and closure following the in-person gathering. For example, Hewlett-Packard has recently extended its two day executive leadership training to include an eight-week online forum for tracking leaders' progress toward learning goals


Communities of Practice

Communities of practice (CoPs) are groups of people who possess a common interest in sharing, learning about, and advancing a specific domain of knowledge. According to the American Productivity and Quality Center, CoPs "are driven by a desire and need to share problems, experiences, insights, templates, tools, and best practices" . While some CoPs revolve around specific business functions, others are focused on building and diffusing knowledge across diverse groups of employees, or even across companies. SBC Pacific Bell, for example, provides both in-person training and an online community for almost 2000 affiliates involved in the sales of its telecommunications services. These key partners integrate SBC's offerings into broader telecom solutions for their clients and, subsequently, require the most current sales, support, and technical resources to be successful. SBC's online community supplements the face-to-face sales and support training offered to its affiliates by providing a secure web-based environment in which partners can access information, surface problems, connect with subject matter experts, and contribute and share best practices.

Project Teams

The Gartner Group forecasts that by 2005, 80% of all global knowledge work will be delivered by virtual project teams . Virtual teams are groups of people that work together but are physically apart. Their activities are often time-bound – they come together to accomplish a specific task and when their objective is met, they disband, with members joining other newly forming project teams. Unlike affinity groups or communities of practice, virtual teams often have a discrete lifespan that's tied to specific business deliverables. Learning professionals are faced with a significant opportunity to capture and diffuse process and content-related knowledge and best practices related to the activities of virtual teams. From a process perspective, the methodology for quickly and efficiently assembling, launching, building, managing, and reallocating virtual team resources is a growing capability critical for most organizations' success in the coming years. From a content perspective, ensuring that new knowledge is captured and shared across teams is essential for enabling organizations to continue to learn from successes and failures.



Does your company have a chief learning officer? Does your training organization view knowledge management as a critical success factor? Do your learning professionals have competencies in organizational development? If you can answer "yes" to any of these questions, you are likely positioned to undertake community-building activities.

So where do you start? Creating communities requires a multidisciplinary approach. Whether building an affinity network, facilitating a learning community, coordinating a community of practice, or working with a project team, sensitivity to the interrelationship of learning, knowledge management, and organizational development (including knowledge of business strategy and group behavior) are critical. An understanding of how technology can play an enabling role in supporting the group is also important since most communities tend to rely on various online tools as a means of communication and knowledge sharing.

Learning communities represent the most logical starting point for most training organizations. They can be sanctioned and implemented from within the department as a natural extension of existing programs. Since many training functions have already incorporated some form of blended learning into their existing strategies, including community tools may not require much internal selling.

While learning groups may be the lowest hanging fruit for training departments, creating communities of practice are one of the more strategic contributions that can be made. The challenge with CoPs is that they can be difficult to build and manage – ongoing senior level business sponsorship is essential, participation is usually voluntary, and the ultimate success of the community may be tied to just several participants who represent thought leaders within the organization. If you can answer "yes" to all of the questions posed above, you are in a much stronger position to champion and build communities of practice.



Learning professionals must address a variety of issues that have implications for the readiness of their organizations to embrace communities. Some of the strategic questions and issues to consider include:

  • Business Issues – What role does your group play in your organization – is your role strictly to deliver stand-up courses, or are you able to define how your company can become a "learning organization"?
  • Sponsorship Issues – Do you have relationships with business leaders across the organization that can help you overcome roadblocks to building communities across the organization?
  • Capability Issues– Can you pull together people with skills in organizational development, eLearning, knowledge management, and technology to get the job done
  • Technology Issues – Are you able to influence or even drive business unit or enterprise technology decisions to support your strategic learning programs?

From a tactical perspective, different groups require different supporting processes and technologies. The following table summarizes the four different types of collaborative groups, outlines the fundamental purpose that bonds the group together, and describes the key supporting processes and technologies that should be considered when creating and building each type of "collaborative environment". Learning professionals who are keenly aware of these differences can anticipate issues and challenges, and create and facilitate online environments targeted at achieving specific business objectives and providing a measurable return on investment (ROI) for the organization.

Affinity Networks Learning Communities Communities of Practice Project Teams
Comprised of people who share common characteristics and derive value from building relationships based on their shared interests. Often involves peer mentoring and a structure to help create connections that lead to personal and professional opportunities. Comprised of people who come together for a single primary purpose – to learn. Participation is usually time-bound and often involves strong guidance or facilitation. Typically organized around a domain of knowledge or specific content area. Comprised of people focused on sharing information and best practices to solve specific problems and achieve personal and collective results. May spawn project teams to address unique business challenges. A task-oriented group established to achieve specific objectives. Participation is usually time-bound.
  • Professional Networking Organizations
  • Membership Associations
  • Employee Networks
  • Distance Education
  • Blended Learning Courses
  • Online Conferences
  • Distributed business functions (R&D, sales, training, etc.)
  • Cross-company practices (e.g. product dev.)
  • Task forces
  • Committees
  • Cross-organizational programs

Self-selection based on personal identification


Shared development objectives


Knowledge building and problem solving


Specific goal or deliverable

Key Supporting Processes:
  • Facilitating networking & relationship building
  • Supporting sub-groups and interest group activities
  • Providing resources appropriate to the specific affiliation
  • Organizing periodic virtual and face-to-face meetings
  • Identifying and representing a collective viewpoint in social, organizational or political arenas
  • Defining and providing the right mix of traditional learning methods and technology (e.g., blended learning) to meet the defined learning objectives
  • Customizing an asynchronous environment that supports individual and group learning
  • Engaging people in online interactions and facilitating dialogue
  • Securing formal and ongoing sponsorship for the community
  • Creating a self-managing environment
  • Providing opportunities for linking in-person meetings to online activities
  • Facilitating networking & relationship building
  • Supporting sub-groups and interest group activities
  • Capturing and transforming knowledge into formal and practical intellectual assets
  • Establishing group norms, roles and processes
  • Linking specific work objectives and deliverables to group processes
  • Linking group processes to supporting technology
  • Coordinating tasks and group interactions
  • Monitoring performance and milestones
Key Supporting Technologies:
  • "Community" focused tools including asynchronous discussion areas, chat, etc.
  • Basic document management
  • Email
  • Polls & surveys
  • Synchronous web conferencing tools for periodic online events
  • Instant messaging
  • Synchronous web conferencing tools
  • Streaming audio and video
  • Basic document management
  • Asynchronous discussions
  • Email
  • Document collaboration
  • Chat
  • Instant messaging
  • Asynchronous discussion areas
  • Expert search
  • Document management
  • Knowledge management
  • Email
  • Synchronous web conferencing tools for periodic online events
  • Document collaboration
  • Instant messaging
  • Project management tools
  • Workflow tools
  • Document versioning & management
  • Synchronous web conferencing tools
  • Email
  • Calendaring
  • Instant messaging


eLearning communities are groups of people bonded together entirely through technology. These communities never convene physically - their interactions and learning begin, and are carried out entirely through technology (on the web, through conference calls, via video conferencing, etc.).

e-Training Communities

e-Training communities promote virtual collaboration that is focused on addressing a specific topic area, usually supported by one or more online learning tools and media. For example, a group of learners may be assigned to a cohort that meets together in a one hour web conference, are assigned to view an interactive CBT sometime during the following three days, and are then facilitated through a process whereby they work together online to address questions and issues raised by the CBT, and learn from each other's own stories and experiences.


Online Conference Communities

Through integrating live web conferencing, streaming video, narrated PowerPoint presentations, and facilitated discussions, it becomes possible to deliver a "conference", entirely online, over several days or even a several week period. Just like face-to-face professional or industry conferences, when facilitated artfully, online conferences allow learners to receive compelling content from presenters, ask questions, network with other attendees, and obtain practical resources and information. Unlike face-to-face conferences, however, people can attend from anywhere and at anytime that fits their schedule, which is ideal for a geographically dispersed group. The overall costs of an online event are far less than its physical equivalent, especially when factoring in travel time and related expenses. Online conference communities typically have life spans of a few days to a few weeks.



Blended learning communities integrate online learning and face-to-face meetings. There are two core assumptions that underlie approaches to building blended learning communities: (1) that the deeper the personal relationships between learners, the richer the collaborative learning experience; and (2) that relationships between learners may be strengthened through structuring group interactions (using technology) before and/or after an face-to-face training event


"Ice Breaker" Blended Learning Communities

Ice Breaker Communities involve pre-event activities to "break the ice" prior to a face-to-face meeting. Many consultants and trainers facilitate "warm-ups" or "ice breakers" to kick off meetings, the goal being to establish norms, ground rules, and an esprit de corps among participants. From a group dynamics perspective, ice breakers accelerate a group's ability to form, storm and norm so that they are able to more quickly and effectively perform the given task at hand†. By engaging learners in structured introductions and pre-work through web conferencing, online discussions, and conference calls prior to a face-to-face training, it becomes possible to accelerate openness, sharing, and collaborative learning when participants finally come together in-person.


Follow-on Blended Learning Communities

Follow-on Communities extend relationships and learning following a face-to-face training event. Rather than end the learning experience when participants walk out the door, a structure and process is provided to keep people engaged, connected and productive for a designated period of time. Follow-on communities can serve as vehicles for sharing group projects, discussing findings from field research, and receiving mentoring from peers and instructors. Here's an example: A group meets for a two-day technical course where a substantial amount of information is shared. Individuals leave the course feeling a great deal smarter, but many questions arise when they get back to their jobs and try to apply their new knowledge. A follow-on community provides peer and instructor feedback and support for six weeks after the two-day training event - questions are answered, coaching is provided, and learning is captured and shared across the group.

End-to-End Blended Learning Communities

End-to-end communities include both Ice Breaker and Follow-on learning activities. Some having likened the end-to-end community to a "digital sandwich††" since the face-to-face meeting is typically "sandwiched" between group interactions supported by eLearning and collaboration tools and technologies. A leadership development program, for example, might include an ice-breaker community to provide pre-work and introduce participants, a face-to-face experiential workshop to help clarify and define individuals' development objectives, and a follow-on community focused on coaching and mentoring to overcome challenges as participants work toward achieving their development objectives.



When creating collaborative learning communities, community builders should consider much more than just technology. Ideally the conversation begins by clarifying the business' strategic objectives and how these translate into group-level and individual competency requirements. From there, learning objectives may be defined that support competency gaps. Group processes to achieve the learning objectives then become clear, along with the appropriate technology to support these processes.


While differences between online and in-person facilitation definitely exist, many seasoned trainers and facilitators discount their skills when it comes to online community building. Just as any trainer might facilitate introductions, set expectations, and ensure equal participation, these same activities (and other common group processes) can and should be applied in the online world. A number of approaches can help engage learners in collaborative online learning environments. We have categorized these under the broad headings of people, group processes, and supporting technology. While not all of the following design principles may apply to a given community, our framework is intended to serve as a basic starting point when creating eLearning or blended learning collaborative environments.


  • Clearly Define Roles - Describe the relationship between the different roles in the community (including the instructor, subgroups, group leaders/facilitators, and individual learners) and outline their responsibilities and interdependencies.
  • Create Sub-Groups - Create sub-groupings of learners that have their own online space for small group learning activities and group project collaboration.
  • Support Individuality - Provide a way for learners to create personal profiles that contain their photos and salient information to the topic at hand (e.g., for a course on marketing, for example, a profile item might include something fun such as "favorite innovative television commercial").

Group Processes

  • Establish Operating Norms - Provide guidelines for online (and offline) etiquette and obtain agreement on the behavior that will lead to successful group and individual learning outcomes (e.g., everyone logs in three times a week, everyone posts one question and one response on the discussion board, etc.).
  • Foster an Environment of Trust - Establishing and aligning learners' expectations around shared objectives, including how individuals' contributions contribute to the broader success of the group, helps create an environment characterized by sharing and openness. Explicitly and collaboratively defining the common values and behavior that will contribute to achieving the shared goals of the group also builds trust.
  • Create a Buddy System - Keeping learners engaged and participating in an online environment can be challenging. By creating a "buddy system" whereby pairs or groups of learners are responsible for joint participation and contribution (co-development of a case study, alternating postings in the discussion area, etc.), a support structure can be created to keep people engaged.


Provide an Integrated and Easy-to-Use Collaborative Learning Environment
Online learning environments come in many shapes and sizes.
Some typical features of these web-based environments include:

Synchronous Tools
  • Audio Conferencing
  • Web Conferencing
  • Video Conferencing
  • Chat
  • Instant Messaging
  • White Boarding
Asynchronous Tools
  • Discussion Boards
  • Calendar
  • Website Links
  • Group Announcements
  • Messaging / E-mail
  • Surveys & Polls
  • Decision Support Tools
Content Integration
  • Interactive CBTs
  • Streaming Audio & Video
  • Narrated Slideshows
  • Web books
Document Management
  • Resource Library
  • Document Collaboration
  • Version Tracking & Control
  • Permission Based Access

In addition to features, simplicity and ease-of-use are the most important attributes to consider when creating or selecting an environment. The goal of technology should be to serve the community through its transparency - learners' time should be spent learning about the topic at hand, not about how to use a given technology. Ideally technology should be transparent to the instructor as well - no technical knowledge should be required to customize or manage the environment.



As workgroup collaboration, knowledge management, and learning technologies and processes converge, "communities" of all kinds will become increasingly prevalent. The challenge facing learning professionals is to link business strategy to learning strategy in ways that seamlessly incorporate community as a means of capturing the informal or tacit knowledge that exists within the organization but is not accessible through formal training programs. Whether creating a community for eLearning, or one that supports a blended learning approach, community builders must consider a variety of factors related to people, group processes, and technology, if they are to design and orchestrate online environments that inspire collaborative learning.

*   Learning Portals: Rate of Adoption (2000). Learning Decisions Interactive Newlsetter, The MASIE Center.
**   Manville, Brook, & Foote, Nathaniel (1996). Strategy as if Knowledge Mattered, FastCompany, April 1996.
***   Henschel, Peter (2001). Understanding and Winning the Never-Ending Search for Talent: The Manager's Core Work in the New Economy, LineZINE, Fall 2001.
  Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Developmental sequences in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.
††   LaBranche, Gary (2002). Meetings & Expositions, American Society of Association Executives, February 2002.