Challenges create community (online)

By Andy Lancaster, Head of Learning and Development, CIPD

The recent UK floods have been a tragedy for some and a shock for all!

However in the midst of the news coverage of people trying to recover from the ruin of their homes and businesses and the loss of belongings, a positive note was widely expressed. Julie West, owner of The Outlet clothing store in Datchet, a particularly devastated village, summed it up on the BBC News Website:

"People have really looked out for one another in the last week. The community spirit has been unbelievable." [1]

It took a challenge to create a true sense of community.

Sadly, that sense of community is a rarity in the day to day life of most towns, cities and villages. Peter Block, in his book "Community: The Structure of Belonging" comments:

"Most of our communities are fragmented and at odds within themselves. Businesses, social services, education, and health care each live within their own worlds. The same is true of individual citizens, who long for connection but end up marginalized, their gifts overlooked, their potential contributions lost." [2] [3]

The term "New Town Blues" has been used to describe the isolation that many people face in their communities as a result of inadequate social interactions. This is not a new phenomenon; a doctor writing in The Lancet in 1938 despaired that "... we have allowed the slum which stunts the body to be replaced by the slum that stunts the mind". [4]

There are propositions that this loss of physical community may be a factor why many now try to fulfil their community needs via online environments such as social media, blogs and forums.

Online communities theoretically make sharing accessible to a wide range of people, and yet in reality many virtual communities struggle to get beyond transactional posts to genuine transformational relationships. For example, a number of recent articles question whether MOOCs can actually deliver outcomes. [5] [6]

The meaning of the word "community" is derived from the Latin "communitas" which at root means "with or together" and "gift". So, you could define a community as a group of people who gather together to offer and receive gifts.

That takes me back to why genuine community was found in the floods. It was in the setting of a shared challenge that individuals offered and received practical support and "gifts" of help resulting in a powerful experience of community.

So, how can we develop genuine online communities?

Surely a great starting place must be groups of 10s, 100s or 1000s of people who recognise mutual challenges and opportunities in which they can share their contribution and receive what others have to bring. In my view it's this is a fundamental factor that brings what the writers of "Building Online Learning Communities" call online "coalescence". [7]

So we need to watch out!

The evidence is clear; if our starting place for creating online communities is the technology the dropout rates are likely to be high and quality of interactions and relationships low. It's a case of putting the cart before the horse and a danger for anyone just jumping on the tech-bandwagon!

However, if we build on the foundation of our shared challenges (or opportunities) with mutual interest and support, we have the potential to create vibrant online communities!

And, the power of the mutually supportive online community is why virtual groups will play an increasing part in effective learning and development.

You can find out more about Andy on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @AndyLancastertUK.


[1] Taken from: "Communities along River Thames battle to stay above water" 15 February 2014 accessed at on 4th April 2014

[2] Taken from: "Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block Notes on the book" accessed at's%20book%20on%20Community.pdf on 4th April 2014.

[3] "Community: The Structure of Belonging", 2009, Block P, Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, ISBN-10: 1605092770, ISBN-13: 978-1605092775.

[4] "Lack of social infrastructure affects community wellbeing" at accessed on 4th April 2014.

[5] "Why MOOCs Fail - Where is the Engagement?", March 2014 accessed at: on 4th April 2014.

[6] Penn GSE Study Shows MOOCs Have Relatively Few Active Users, With Only a Few Persisting to Course End. April 2014 accessed at:  on 4th April 2014.

[7] "Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom", 2007, Palloff R and P,ratt K, ISBN-10: 0787988251, ISBN-13: 978-0787988258.

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

  • Nicely said. I think we do get blinded by tech and assume that if we just put a swanky forum online people will talk. There is a fantastic book called "The Art of Community" from one of the people behind the Ubuntu open-source operating system and technology is in the background the whole book through. The author instead talks about motivations, psychology, ego, common goals, regular meetings, etc. If we really want to build a digital community, we should imagine what our actions would look like if this was just a room full of strangers. How do we get them to talk?

  • Good post Andy, I posted this earlier in the year on the same topic building online communities is easy making them endure and grow is the challenge.

  • Thanks Matthew and Kandy for the two useful "community" references!