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CASE: Building a learning community online

Two years ago, a large multinational set up an entirely new service aimed at protecting our climate. A group of about 12 people from all over the world pioneered this unique task (you can find that story here). The big question was how to build a learning, largely virtual, community that produces results and in which people can work safely and healthily - within a larger organisation with structures and protocols that are designed for a completely different type of work process. All this, in times of rapid growth.


We supported at the kickoff and then stayed on board one day a week to search and build from the inside out and on-the-go.



From the beginning, we chose not to think in terms of a team, but of a community. At the heart is the core team: consisting of 12 people at first and 20 later on in the process. These people worked together with about 200 people from the larger organization, all of whom were needed to get the job done. So, as far as we were concerned, this whole group was the learning community. How do you learn with so many people in different time zones? How do you ensure that crucial knowledge becomes quickly available where you need it? How do you bring people on board and get them going in a virtual setting? 



Because the team worked in different time zones, we gained a lot of experience in working together remotely from the start. When the covid-19 pandemic erupted, the foundation we had laid was even more important and stronger than ever.


Looking back, these are the things that worked extra well.


  • A special place for the purpose and the 'root story'
    Soon after we went to work, we recorded a podcast dedicated to the birth story of the initiative. We chose not to have John (as manager perhaps the logical choice) narrate the story, but Tim: one of the founding team members. It turned out to be a beautiful, personal story that not only covered content (why are we doing this, what is the goal?) but also personal motivations and critical experiences, such as first failures and breakthroughs. Every new member of the community received the podcast as an onboarding gift. A powerful way to strengthen the feeling of 'belonging' and 'ownership'. If you know how an initiative originated - its 'big bang' - you can understand not only what it's meant to be, but also where certain ways of working come from. It created pride in everyone who joined and implicitly invited and enabled them to contribute to the continuation of this story.


  • Podcasts to get to know and develop knowledge
    The podcast with the original story turned out to be a huge success, a lot of people listened to it. This gave rise to the idea of doing more with this medium to both strengthen the feeling of connection and stimulate the learning process. A team member with a childhood dream of becoming a DJ picked this up and since then, he regularly makes a podcast in which someone from the community talks about their own learning experiences, discoveries and curious questions for the future. With also a favourite song or a small interview. In this way knowledge flowed easily. People like to listen to it and many insights are shared all over the world.


  • The all-day espresso bar in MS teams and pub quiz on Whatsapp
    In MS Teams we had set up an all-day espresso bar, next to a number of large and small work-oriented channels. It was well visited, especially when the Covid-19 pandemic started. People shared questions about their work-life balance here, but also jokes and movies. The chat format made it possible for everyone to participate, regardless of their time zone. The Whatsapp group also suddenly became more important because it was an informal channel in which you didn't have to participate. So anyone who wanted to join the Whatsapp pub quiz was welcome, but if it wasn't convenient you could easily skip it.


Larger platforms from the parent company such as Yammer and Sharepoint also had their function, especially for sharing and storing more formal information.



All in all, it was special to see how the different online tools each got their own shape and function, and how they came to form the community's own online 'ecosystem'. There was room to talk about results and objectives, but also for sharing knowledge and share social news. At any moment, any of these ‘channels’ could be scaled up depending on what was needed. When Covid-19 came along and the need for connectedness increased even more, a favourite music podcast and weekly homework video were created very easily. Later on, these again made way for more content-focused initiatives.


The combination of interventions resulted in the collective intelligence of the group being addressed more and more easily. The 'what does the lead want' and 'how does it belong' reflexes from the beginning are now replaced by 'what do we know together'? Community members find it increasingly easy to develop smart solutions for unexpected situations. The consistent use of individual voices of colleagues in podcasts from, for example, the Philippines, Canada or Sweden, has contributed enormously to this. The connectedness and associated working vitality of the team members had also grown strongly. Factors that are perhaps more important than ever in these times.