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Exclusive interview with Amy Jo Kim

First published: February 27, 2001

We talk to Amy Jo Kim, author of Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities, on building and sustaining successful learning communities.
E-mail Interview, 27 February 2001.

elearningpost: A vibrant "learning community" is often seen as a melting pot for knowledge creation and knowledge sharing. Much has been said and written on the importance of having such communities in learning environments. Going with your experience in building successful online communities for Ebay, Adobe, and NetNoir, how different is building successful online "learning communities" where the goal is to meet certain learning objectives?

Amy Jo Kim: You just nailed a key issue: focusing on the community's objective. In my experience, a cornerstone for building any successful Web community is to focus relentlessly on understanding and meeting the needs of the members, while also achieving the objectives (be they personal, financial or social) of the community owners and/or leaders. That's the "sweet spot" in community development; it's a tricky balancing act, but very rewarding when you can pull it off.

"To create an effective learning community, you need to develop a social and technical infrastructure that supports the key activity that's happening there -- which can be quite different for various online learning communities."

To create an effective learning community, you need to develop a social and technical infrastructure that supports the key activity that's happening there -- which can be quite different for various online learning communities. For example, a corporate knowledge-sharing community for technical sales reps would require a different supportive infrastructure and management style than the community portion of an online MBA program. The sales reps might need to stay up to date on the items they're selling, and get answers to specific technical questions quickly - in addition to staying in touch with the home office. Whereas the MBA students will be more focused on completing class assignments, consolidating and extending their knowledge, and making professionally advantageous contacts.

elearningpost: One notion that is gaining momentum in the corporate world is that of "communities of practice" -- communities built around common practices. In the real world, these communities would enable a "novice" to linger about, observe, and interact with "experts" in a particular field. The belief is that by doing so, the novice can pick up subtle clues, procedures and behaviors of that practice, and get attuned with the culture of that practice. This enables them to start traversing the path from newcomer to old-timer, or in other words -- learn. Can such communities of practice be built on the Web? If so, what are the characteristics of such online communities?

Amy Jo Kim: I believe wholeheartedly that effective "communities of practice" can indeed be built on the Web, and I see emerging examples everywhere -- particularly in technical-support sites like those at Adobe, Dell and Cisco, and also in broader sites like Experts Exchange and AskMe. In each of these Web communities, experienced members are sharing their knowledge and wisdom with less experienced people, and gaining respect and recognition in the process. Although these early examples are still rather simple, they contain the essence of communities of practice, and over the next few years I think we'll see this genre develop into something much richer and more robust.

In my book (www.naima.com/community), I describe the "Membership Life Cycle" which moves a member from newcomer to oldtimer. Along that path, there are certain key transition points - "rites of passage" if you will -- where learning takes place explicitly, and these points require interaction between newcomers and oldtimers. So one key characteristic of a thriving community of practice is the emergence of these transition rituals -- which could be as simple as getting your technical question answered correctly for the first time, or as complex as a level-based certification program for newly-minted "experts."

Returning to the theme of learner objectives: for a community of practice to thrive, it's crucial that the activities within the community truly benefit both newcomers and oldtimers. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked to evaluate and help "fix" communities of practice that were deeply broken at the motivation level. You can lead someone to a community, but you can't make them actively participate unless that interaction will meet some basic need that they have -- be it personal, professional, social, whatever. And since communities of practice are fundamentally forums for professional development, that's the place to start.

A good example of this dynamic is Experts Exchange, a question-and-answer site for IT professionals. This site contains an extraordinary amount of specific and highly useful information, written by people who really know what they're talking about. And unlike expert sites like ePeople, these people receive no direct financial remuneration for their knowledge and effort.

" So if you want to build an effective community of practice, it's important to insure that newcomers have access to the more experienced folks - but even more important to create an infrastructure that provides real value to the expert contributors you want to attract and motivate"

So what motivates these people to spend their time answering questions? According to interviews with the top experts on the site, they get personal satisfaction from contributing to the community, and an ego boost from building up their reputation. But most importantly, they see their participation as an effective way to raise their visibility and further their careers. In fact, some EE experts have used their online ratings as part of their resume, and have gotten jobs based on their demonstrated abilities within the site!

So if you want to build an effective community of practice, it's important to insure that newcomers have access to the more experienced folks - but even more important to create an infrastructure that provides real value to the expert contributors you want to attract and motivate.

elearningpost: Certain online communities have filtering systems or reputation systems, such as the "rating system" of epinions (http://www.epinions.com), or (http://www.experts-exchange.com). These provide the necessary ego boost, or the enticement-to-participate on the personal level. What are some similar "personal-enticement" strategies that can be used in non-filtering based systems, such as for a normal online discussion between an instructor and his students?

Amy Jo Kim: Systems like the ones you described are network-based, and need a critical mass of participants to operate properly (see discussion about groups and networks below). I don't think these types of software-based incentives are necessary or appropriate for a group-based class discussion. In that scenario, the single best participation incentive I've run across is to make each student's online participation a part of their final grade. I've used this myself to great effect ;-)

Also, it's extremely helpful to have the instructor model effective online behavior and leadership by participating actively in the discussions. There are few things more destructive to a learning community than a leader who talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk.

elearningpost: For online learning communities, where elicitation and sharing of knowledge are of prime importance, how strategic is the role of a moderator/facilitator? What are the skill-sets required for such a job?

Amy Jo Kim: That really depends on the specifics and scale of the community, and the motivation and experience of the participants. Moderators can certainly make a huge difference, particularly in small, discussion-based communities. For example, I used online discussions to supplement my Stanford class in Web Community Design, and my participation in these discussions as an experienced moderator made a huge difference (at least, according to the feedback I received from my students). An effective moderator will help to keep the peace and keep the discussion moving -- and will also provide a role model for online behavior, which can be a very powerful thing. I've heard similar stories from other teachers -- and also from people like Howard Rheingold who've developed corporate training communities and events. I cover the basic skills of a good moderator in my book; you can also find some useful info at Rheingold's site, and at Nancy White's site.

However, learning communities that are more network-based are not always dependent on the skills of a moderator/facilitator. For example, an IT Q&A community like Experts Exchange keeps the quality high through structured interactions that are facilitated by the community infrastructure, rather than through moderator participation. And Slashdot, the Open Source community, relies on user ratings to manage the volume, and sort the wheat from the chaff.

elearningpost: There seems to be a critical mass of members that is required for online communities to thrive. Any number below or above this critical mass becomes an impediment for success. While large communities such as Slashdot seem to suffer from more than this critical mass [Reference: Kuro5hin discussion on online communities],online communities for e-learning on the other hand, have a problem of low membership counts. Courses typically have student enrollment of 20-25 and small and medium size enterprises have a much lesser number of employees. How does one go about creating and sustaining effective communities in such scenarios?

Amy Jo Kim: Wow, that's a great question - and something I've been focused on this past year. Scale issues are so important in community design, especially when you're setting up your initial infrastructure.

"elearning is so broad that there's no single answer, but a key guideline is to invoke "learner-centered design," and create a knowledge-sharing infrastructure that's designed to support the learning goals of the participants, and that takes into account their motivation and lifestyle."

Again, I'd say that elearning is so broad that there's no single answer, but a key guideline is to invoke "learner-centered design," and create a knowledge-sharing infrastructure that's designed to support the learning goals of the participants, and that takes into account their motivation and lifestyle.

The scale issues come in when you think about the difference between groups and networks. A class or project team is essentially a group, which is a small and intimate social structure that promotes "strong ties." In general, groups thrive when they have collaboration and communication tools that foster their shared goal -- which might be completing an assignment, gaining knowledge about a subject, or holding meetings with distant colleagues.

In contrast, a network is a larger and more loosely-associated collection of people with a shared goal. Networks fulfill very different needs than groups do, and these structures can (and should) be synergistic within a thriving learning community. For example, a class might use a message board for announcements, discussions and assignments -- and a distributed workgroup might use a group-based collaboration tool like Groove or WebEx to stay in touch and exchange information. But the members of these groups would also benefit from participating in a larger network like-minded learners and colleagues -- which might be structured as a series of discussions, a collection of mailing lists, or even a structured Q&A network with ratings and contact info.

The point is that small groups can provide tremendously valuable learning experiences, as long as they're supported with appropriate activity-centric tools and infrastructure. But a group will never provide the reach and "collective intelligence" of a network, so it's important to look beyond the confines of small groups if you want to provide that type of learning experience. For example, an online university with many classes could provide some ongoing network-style interest groups, in addition to providing online support for individual classes.

elearningpost: With the popularity of wireless Internet, and with mainstream broadband becoming a reality, what changes/trends are expected for online communities of the near future?

Amy Jo Kim: Well, we're already seeing the results of broadband penetration in the home and workplace, in that more and more people are using video to supplement their online communications -- within meeting tools like WebEx and Placeware, and at video-chat communities like webcamnow. I think that this trend will continue, and elearning companies will find increasingly sophisticated ways to incorporate audio and video broadcasts and interactive chat into their offerings. It won't replace email and message boards -- but it'll add a vivid and emotional dimension to online learning. We'll also see an increasing number of companies developing and deploying media-rich online classes, which in some situations (e.g. you-are-there simulations) can be a highly effective form of training

It's less clear to me how wireless technologies will affect online learning. These technologies are already having a major impact in the community space, especially in places like Japan and Finland. I imagine that people will use the increased accessibility that wireless offers to stay in closer touch with their existing colleagues and fellow learners, and encourage people to dip into their communities for "quick hits" like getting answers to pressing questions, or just saying hello to one's pals.

About Amy Jo Kim

Amy Jo Kim, Ph.D. is author of Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities. She has been designing innovative online environments for over 15 years. Kim is the Founder and Creative Director of NAIMA, a design studio specializing in cutting-edge Web communities. NAIMA's clients include some of the most innovative and influential companies on the Net. She also teaches Online Community Design at Stanford University, and has spoken and written extensively about Web communities.

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