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Are We a Learning Environment or a Push Marketing Platform?

Our SCN (formerly SDN) community website was originally created as DevNet, a collaborative learning environment for a global community of IT professionals.

I discovered the fledgling DevNet/SDN back in 2002-2003.  As a "brick and mortar" instructor my experience was in a corporate technical classroom setting with around 20-30 students weekly.  I soon learned that in order to stay relevant and keep learning (even while an educator in a classroom) I needed to get off the stage and move from being a “sage on stage” to being a “guide on side”.  Working to create a more participatory learning and peer-oriented collaboration context in the classroom, I began to coach my students to teach each other rather than just having them rely on me to lecture them. I learned that classroom listening is where the real “magic” and learning takes place.  I learned from my students and they learned from each other.  I stopped talking (as much) and began active listening.  But I still held on to my role as “guide” in the conversation. Then I discovered the online learning environment which was the SAP Developer Network and I found a whole community of potential guides.

These days, in the online community, I’ve turned from being a guide to being a self-declared community advocate.
For me that means something other than being an online facilitator or virtual mentor.  Advocating actually entails amplifying, recognizing and supporting the voices of others.  And it's not just about listening harder (an important thing in and of itself), it’s also about making others louder (or at least having them heard properly).

But in the 11 years that I've worked with this community, there has been a shift (even in ownership) from developer-centric learning environment to a marketing owned platform.

Are we talking? Are we listening? Are we SAP listening to others talking?

Recent Stats And Some Challenges As We Grow in Size

There are challenges we've faced over the last decade engaging with this community where there are now over 2.5 million unique visitors (potential voices) monthly and cumulatively over a decade of existence more than a quarter million contributors (active contributing voices).

We've grown from 3 moderators (guides) to over 350 moderator/facilitators.

The content stats these moderators govern look like this:

  • Over 500 topic spaces
  • Over 15,000 discussion threads (forum questions) generated monthly
  • Over 1200 blogs generated monthly

Not every contributor here is a learner or instructor. Some contributors are indeed more marketer than listener and some members are more consumers than contributors. Not all the spaces and generated content here constitute an opportunity for learning.   Not all content has intrinsic value for participants.

But I believe that the basic premise of the website is still this: most people on the website (from over 200 countries) come together here to share experience, solutions to problems, learning outcomes and to grow their personal knowledge and expertise.

Challenges In The Social Context

This is, from my perspective, a social, learning network.

Some of the community network challenges I have heard in this social, learning context are:

  • How to make new members feel welcome?
  • How to engage with people in a personal way?
  • How to enable real community collaboration which is an un-brokered peer dialogue?
  • How to foster authenticity?
  • How to address poor or undesirable behaviors?
  • How to ensure the creation of quality content?
  • How to be heard?

Attempts To Meet Those Social Learning Challenges

Some of our experiments have included:

  • Blog it Forward: a pass the baton technique where someone answers a set of personal/engaging/professional questions and invites (by name) others to participate in blogging it forward. This has helped engage newbies, given a "human" face to participants, and uncovered helpful areas of expertise that those who write about themselves share with others.

  • Member of the Month: highlighting leading practices and practitioners of good moderation and participation techniques

  • Missions and Badges: Rewarding and reinforcing good behaviors, acknowledging tasks completed (such as reading the Guidelines for Participation or Rules of Engagement, commenting on and acknowledging the work of others, answering questions to the satisfaction of other participants).

  • Coffee Corner   Providing a Place to Rant (and listening carefully to the rants): A forum called the Coffee Corner became a place where people can discuss "frivolous" and also meaningful things that are beyond the scope of the learning environment, yet might also give many insights and provide opportunities for improvement of the environment    

Unresolved Challenges

Some of the challenges as yet unresolved (or in progress to resolve):

  • Domineering participants
  • Bullying behavior
  • Shaming
  • Lack of cultural sensitivity
  • Lack of inclusive language and behavior
  • Lack of consistent quality
  • Vigilante activity
  • Authentication of originality of work
  • Speaking without listening

Proposed Resolutions or How Do We Maintain a Learning Community?

fred.verheul raised quality of content issues, sensitivity to the marketing content and touched on many of the core challenges in his post:

What kind of blog posts do we want on SCN?

I'd like to gauge further:

  • How interested are you in maintaining a Learning Community?
  • How do we create a sense of "ownership" and self-governance while balancing structure, form and guidance?
  • What makes this a Learning Community rather than a Marketing Community?
  • How do we access the quality of the learning that potentially happens here?

In the spirit of listening, I’d like to stop talking now and hear what you have to say instead.