How to Build a True Learning Community at the Core of Your Membership Model

What makes a group into a learning community? And what is the role of social media-enabled learning communities in the modern membership organization and other comparable types of  knowledge service delivery?  I have often written about the Veterinary Information Network’s (VIN’s) virtual membership and business models.  At a recent visit at VIN’s headquarters in Davis, California, I was…

What makes a group into a learning community? And what is the role of social media-enabled learning communities in the modern membership organization and other comparable types of  knowledge service delivery?  I have often written about the Veterinary Information Network’s (VIN’s) virtual membership and business models.  At a recent visit at VIN’s headquarters in Davis, California, I was struck by the realization that developmental learning is the basis of every aspect of VIN’s model and practice.

I use the term “developmental learning” to specify learning that is purposeful—leading to specific solutions to specific problems and constantly developing participants along competency-building paths.  This is different from open learning in open social networking communities and can become the basis for alternative, revenue-generating models of service.

A Day in the Life

VIN is the virtual professional association for veterinarians that has successfully challenged the orthodoxy of the mainstream AVMA with a new, virtual, community-based, membership model and is revered by its members, who call themselves “Vinners.” My son Colin, a young veterinarian with his own practice in Fort Bragg, California, is such a “Vinner.” I asked him to walk me through a typical day in which he uses the resources of the VIN community so I could gauge its value through a member’s eyes. Welcome to a day in his life.

  •  First thing in the morning: checks news headlines, VIN’s latest feature.  First, I questioned the need for it,” he tells me, “but then I realized that these were unique stories or perspectives on stories that are relevant to vets. What’s more, it is interactive and you have a chance to comment. It looks like VIN is bringing the community together around issues of importance to us. Before you know it, discussions spring up around a news story and acquire a life of their own.” Like everything else at VIN, news stories and discussions are archived so that they can be searched later.
  • All through the day: 
    • Consults with the Drug & Food Recall Center to stay on top of products that have been recalled.
    • Checks clinical updates, relevant to the cases he is working on:  He loves that he can pick among several levels of knowledge about a topic, depending on his need:
      •  thoroughly researched and detailed summaries, composed by VIN specialist consultants
      • journal articles and other research data from around the world
      • archived conference proceedings, or
      • archived member discussions on the topic, captured from message boards.  He can count on the information being up-to-the-minute and constantly updated.
  • Lunch break: logs into VIN to check discussions on message boards or catches up on a new clinical update.
  • Afternoon:  Needs to contact a specialist on a difficult case before he performs a surgery.  His online query to one of VIN’s consulting specialists is answered within minutes.  He also gets advice and support from peers who had dealt with similar cases.  These answers and discussions his questions generated are archived and indexed, instantly adding to the ever growing body of the community’s knowledge capital.  Before VIN, he would have to spend all day, identifying, tracking down and contacting an expert from among the faculty of different veterinary schools.

Anchoring Building Blocks for an Effective Learning Community

That a community or any kind of service can have critical relevance for a member on a daily basis is remarkable to me. What makes it indispensable to members’ lives and successful as the basis of the organization’s business model and value proposition? Below are six foundational building blocks that could be transferred and adapted by other membership organizations:

  1. Aggregate contributors to members’ success on one virtual platforms.  Instead of giving members answers through commodities (products, programs, etc.), gather all the pieces they need to succeed (information, access to experts and peers etc.) in one platform and develop paths to learning and solutions-development.
  2. Learn directly from and with members rather than from committee-based and data-driven processes. Enable members to air and frame problems on message boards and decipher the clues for the solutions you need to develop or facilitate. A medical message board, rather than a benefits package or organization chart was the first piece that VIN launched
  3. Develop a strategic community architecture based on developmental learning. VIN did not just populate the community with members and information and left it to develop on its own. It built a new architecture based on strategic choices about the mix of participants; delineation of various roles among them; and guided paths for learning and participation that enabled solutions.
  4. Leverage member capital and develop member leaders to ensure updated content and sustainability.The “we produce/you buy” service model is neither compelling nor sustainable today.  Social media has opened up new options for dispersed and collaborative learning. You can leverage them to develop a new genre of member volunteer leadership: partners and stakeholders who will enable you to access, manage and sustain diverse knowledge assets and relationships that could not be supported by the association staff alone. The heart of VIN is its over 200 member consultants who provide specialized expertise to a membership base whose majority are generalists. Consultants are carefully identified, recruited and developed on the basis of qualities beyond their expertise, such as a passion for sharing and teaching; and the lack of personal or political agendas.  Consultants’ principal role is to manage discussions and content on one of VIN’s 44 message boards, each focused on a sub-specialty or topics that run across specialties. Other roles for member consultants include “member “buddies” who are assigned to individual new member as “buddies” in exchange for free membership, to provide them with support, orientation and encouragement to engage.
  5.  Create dynamic relationships among the various parts of your community: the self-sustaining value loop:  Perhaps the greatest value and most distinguishing characteristic of VIN’s learning community is its constant motion and ability to be self-sustaining. VIN editors organize archived content; edit and often retitle and re-categorize entries to make them searchable and consistent with their larger knowledge system. Everyone is involved in creating, updating and managing content through different roles.   Member editors or staff may jump into a discussion to provide answers or expertise; or volunteer to conduct research on a discussion topic. Archived discussions are constantly renewed and re-energized rather than simply stored as members refer to them to solve a current case and, in the process, update or enhance the information, thus contributing to an ever expanding value loop.
  6. Engage members as well as staff in discovery and co-development. The community provides the primary platform for new product and business development. Ideas stem from clues extracted from member-to-member discussions on message boards; a member’s direct suggestion; and constant assessment of the results members have with products and services. Member complaints or frustrations are often turned into learning and co-development opportunities. The CEO has often invited complaining members to offer suggestions for solutions; and offered support and encouragement for the member to take on a leading role in developing them. Finally, a beta virtual version of VIN becomes a playground for members and staff to experiment with and test new ideas.

How these 6 anchoring building blocks can be modified and applied depends on the needs and capabilities of the individual organization. Underlying them, however, are two larger, fundamental mental shifts in service delivery, inspired and enabled by social media:

  1.  thinking of members as co-creators rather than passive consumers;
  2. considering value in terms of the capabilities and solutions you enable on a continuous basis rather than a one-time product or destination.

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