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Making Virtual Communities Less Awful

Making Virtual Communities Less Awful

Although few explicit mentions have been made for online community creation as a product of design thinking, we believe the creation of online learning communities for our clients is best supported by a design thinking approach. Bob Robertson, presenting at The Art of Management Conference in 2008 remarked that,

if we wish to design transformative and innovative products and services that meet and exceed the needs of people, and that reach across global, local and individual cultural domains, we must begin by understanding the design thinking processes and tools that help us to share what we know

Design thinking, in its barest form, is a repeatable process or set of protocols that supports new thinking, creative solutions and collaborative action. For the purpose of this post, I would like to consider five key elements of design thinking in looking at the design and delivery of virtual learning communities.


1. Center the design process on the user

2. Be clear on the desired future

3. Listen intensely

4. Engage and collaborate

5. Iterate and experiment


Design is Centered on the User


This seems such a straight-forward concept yet we are consistently reminded of failures in application as traditional producers focus on inductive reasoning (proving that things are working) and deductive reasoning (proving that something must be) while avoiding abductive reasoning (exploring what could be).


Most design is done with the intent of creating value for the consumer or user. Value is not a generic or abstract concept. Value lies in the experience of specific users, at a specific point in time, in the context of a specific learning event. Value is not an aggregate of potentials, but rather is a summation of real events. A failure to understand the contexts of the users is contrary to a design approach.


A similar perspective should permeate our approach to implementing learning communities. Writers on design thinking often advocate an almost anthropological approach to design as, “the only way to gain this insight is to embed yourself in the community and practice of the people you’re designing for” (Evins 2010). Our learning communities are supported by the creation of an 'equal playing field' and through 'modeling the methodology'. We believe in facilitation that allows instructors to throw away their agendas and their need to control in order to the let the process happen and allow for the personal agendas of the learners to be accommodated.


The role of the online facilitator seems to more closely resemble that of a designer than a traditional teacher. The role is to ensure that the specific learning outcomes are being addressed and that a container exists to support the space for reflection and transformation. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu states (also borrowed from Bob Robertson),

Shape clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

Too often we associate value with the container rather than the contents within.


Be Clear on the Desired Future


The outcomes of a learning community need to extend beyond a depth of knowledge or skill.The need for social connection can almost supersede the content-oriented goals as the knowledge and skill must be situated in practice, and the reality of organizational life is the social construction of meaning. It would be easy to avoid the messy details of online community and focus on the content. However, a focus on the user requires that these needs be addressed.


There is a general trend to expect increasingly sophisticated experiences that are emotionally satisfying and meaningful across all dimensions of consumption. Learning experiences are no different, and the depth and breadth of possible learning experiences are well documented. The goals seem simple – depth of knowledge and number of skills. The path to get there is a hazardous one, but by keeping one’s eye on the desired outcome, design supports the development of reflection, collaboration and community and allows for the outcomes to be achieved.


Listen Intensely


Through our experiences working with clients, we are constantly aware of the need to appreciate the differences between explicit and tacit knowledge. This is foundational to our work. Tacit knowledge guides our perceptions of the world and is a creation of socialization, experience and other factors. The “Aha!” moments we experience are often the surfacing of tacit knowledge into the explicit realm.


Tacit knowledge provides the filter by which we experience the world and must be given an explicit externalized form in order for others to assimilate it. Design thinking assumes a social constructivist approach and extends this to the ability of objects to embody the knowledge of their creators. A cup, by its very design, suggests its possible uses.


Listening intensely means creating a generative space for tacit knowledge to be made explicit and become a part of the knowledge transfer and allow all participants to share what they know in a larger context. This is similar to what Ikujiro Nonaka refers to as a “self-transcending process” (Nonaka, 2000). Design thinking would suggest that a successful learning outcome is best supported by the social exploration of knowledge.


Good community design supports these objectives. Effective collaborative activity allows participants to bring their own cultural or personal ways of knowing to the tasks at hand. We see our role as a responsibility to create a container through which these divergent ways of knowing can intersect and co-create. This seems to support online learning as a product of design thinking, at least in terms of the need to encourage the self-transcending transfer of knowledge in a collaborative way.


Engage and Collaborate


Design thinking generally allows that collaborative knowledge creation is more effective than solitary knowledge creation and research seems to support this (Stokes & Logan 2004). Our experience supports this idea in designing virtual and local learning communities. The need for collaboration is also a logical consequence of the previous three components of a design approach.


By centering on the user, we see that learning outcomes are supported by community. With community as one of several components of our final desired outcome, we can introduce tools and measures to accommodate community creation. One of these tools is the need for a space to be held to surface tacit knowledge and create opportunities for self-transcendent learning, thus supporting community outcomes and development.


Iterate and Experiment


Products evolve at the points where people interact with them (Robertson 2008). The need to fail often to succeed quickly allows for new ideas to surface, evolve and succeed or fail. A holistic approach to design can best be seen as a “container” and “contents”. The “container” is the learning management system, the processes, the protocols and all the work that the faculty/designers can do to create a space for the learning outcomes to happen. The contents are the course activity and the processes that support learning outcomes through the development of community, collaboration and engagement. We advocate an approach that engages the learners in selecting and developing content ... there is negotiation about the content and strategy for exploring it.


We sometimes find it hard to iterate and experiment with the structural capital of an online learning environment. Put another way, David Snowden describes two dimensions of culture – socio-cultural systems and ideational-cultural systems. The ideational-cultural systems are the tacit, tribal and fluid aspects of culture (Snowden, 2002). We have explored in some depth how to deal with this dimension in designing and delivering a program. The socio-cultural systems are the patterns, the tools and the protocols that overlay the ideational dimension. We are not clear if experimentation in this dimension is desirable or how experimentation should be supported by a designer/instructor.




We are strong advocates for a design thinking approach to new products, processes or services. We are becoming increasingly convinced that a design thinking approach to developing a virtual learning community is the most effective approach. The learner is clearly central to the process and great efforts are made to accommodate a complex and challenging future end state. Intense listening occurs and knowledge is constructed socially through good design and facilitation. Only in the area of experimentation, and specifically in the structural capital, do we struggle to align fully with a design approach. We will continue to explore this parallel and look at how online communities can be supported by new advances in design thinking.



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