Networks, Groups and Catalysts: The Sweet Spot for Forming Online Learning Communities

Nancy White, August 2002

Presented at Net*Working 2002, Australia (online)

In the late 90’s there was a lot of energy around “virtual communities.” They were touted as the ultimate web deployment, the key to online commerce and later online education. Early adopters swarmed sites and racked up web hits in the millions.

But then there was a deafening silence. Commerce and media sites began closing down their discussion boards. Even busy boards like CNN’s were shuttered. Was the online community movement dead?

No, it was just transforming itself, settling down and maturing into a space where it had real value and applicability. The bottom line is that online community or online interaction is not the goal. It’s one means for helping groups achieve their goals. It is not necessarily about “online community” but what conditions and process are needed to enable communities to use the online environment.

The Opportunity

Online interaction presents a powerful tool for communities, non-profits and groups. One can point to countless cases of the value of learning skills together and reducing the volume of “wheel reinvention” in an environment of scarce resources. Envision people working on similar projects within NGOs or across organizations: AIDS educators sharing tips for reaching target populations, IT managers working through problems around software, or agricultural researchers sharing data on field trials and implementation approaches are examples. These are learning communities which, although distributed, support specific local community goals like preventing AIDs in a village or ending hunger in a country.

We can enlarge our thinking beyond the NGOs to the wider communities they serve. What if communities used online community consultation to inform the work of the NGOs – NGOs who claim to serve them? Can they drive their own fate, vs. waiting to be “done unto?” What about the creation of online learning groups that recognize and strengthen a community’s intellectual assets? Online interaction can meaningfully contribute to these efforts. It can provide the means to connect people to gather knowledge and experience critical to both organizational survival, but more importantly, contribute towards achieving community and organizational goals.

The potential is there. If we assume online interaction can be of value, how can the formation of groups and the online spaces they use be encouraged and nurtured? How do people find each other to interact? Think of people in NGOs and isolated communities who have no internal peers within their organization with whom to interact. Their internal networks may lack diversity of knowledge and experience. What is the space that holds a place for connections?

The Container:
Networks, Groups, Learning Communities and Communities of Practice

Existing formal and informal networks offer a “container” that can allow the emergence and growth of more focused groups. They provide some level of connection and awareness of between people with some interest in common. We can look both locally and globally for people, information and learning. We are not limited by location. This mix is one of the essential advantages of applying online tools – the connections can be global, even when the action is local.

Examples of networks might include topical or professional email lists, associations, alumni groups, online bulletin boards (“communities”), or other informal groups. Some networks are more fertile grounds than others. Networks that have both a strong core that supports relationship and a wide periphery, which supports diversity, offer greater resources to emergent groups. “Old Boy” networks tend to be less supportive of emergent groups and often lack the rich diversity that is helpful to new groups.

The Catalysts: Events and People

Networks are by nature open and diffuse – particularly computer mediated or supported networks where people may never meet face-to-face. They are great containers to pass information around in, but are rarely organized enough to accomplish tasks. A more defined group is needed. There needs to be a focus on action and specific context of the place or geography of the action. To mobilize the people and resources, there needs to be some kernel or point of gravity around which more focused groups can form.

One way is through online and face-to-face (F2F) events. Net*Working 2002 is a perfect example. It will attract people with some general interests around the common theme who might not have come together before. During the event, they may get to know each other more, discover common interests, and even explore doing further work or learning together. Net*Working can attract people from different networks, affording some “cross-pollination” which enriches the networks. Events can spark the intersection between people, networks plus revitalize the networks themselves by drawing in new people. They can be thought of as “punctuation” in the rather flat time experience of a network into a “here and now – lets connect!”

Another catalytic force is that of individuals who decide they want to increase connection and move from general networking to action. Gill Sellers and her project is another great example. Gill and her fellow community members wanted to get something done. They moved from talk to action. Communities won’t leverage online technologies for their use unless someone takes the first step. People as catalysts are an immense resource.

Putting it All Together

So the networks connect, and catalysts, in the form of events and people, trigger formation of a distinct group of willing and interested people. This may be a core of geographically co-located people and a wider, distributed network of resource folk. The next question is what does it take to realize the potential of the online tools to the group and its purpose?

When approached as a tool for community development, online interaction provides a way to bridge time and distance to bring people together to do something – to discuss, work, shop, play, or whatever. The key factors in the successful deployment of online interaction are a clear purpose and the appropriate match or blend of tools and processes. Just like you would plan the best use of meeting time, or how to use a newsletter or a conference call, online interactions can be strategically deployed. Not because they are there and are “cool.” The subsequent factors are the design of the online interaction space and the processes put in play to use the space. So the sequence might look like this:


: What is the group’s goal and how might it be enhanced with online interaction? Establish an initial statement of purpose. What are we doing and why? Who else has done something similar? What can we learn from them?


: What are the conditions at play? Assess the target audience and the environmental conditions to inform further planning and design. Who are the potential players or stakeholders?Think carefully of the relationship between the target group and larger networks that might inform and support the group’s goals. Remember that the Internet is bounded by our imagination, not by who is in the room!


: Based on the assessment, explore which tools and methodologies can help this particular group of people reach their desired goal within the parameters of their access, skills and resources.


: Design the online space and processes to reflect all that has been learned so far. Processes such as facilitation, norms and agreements are just as important as the software you choose. Think about timing, ‘punctuation” and other factors which can create and hold engagement. Test and refine.


: Market, launch and deploy the effort with multiple points of ongoing feedback. Listen. Refine. Improve. Report back.


: Glean the lessons learned and share them with the group and wider as appropriate. Increase the community capacity to engage online by learning these lessons, not leaving them behind.


: Do it again, only better this time!

Two Case Studies

The concept of network as container, with events and people as catalysts to active groups is all fine and good. The steps for applying online interaction to the active groups are peachy. But does this work in real life? Yes. Here are two examples.

1. Project Harmony Internet Community Development Project

Individual à
Network à
Project à
Communities at Work

(For a more detailed look at this case, see

A small international NGO received a grant to develop “online communities for NGOS and Small/Medium Enterprises (SMEs)” in the former Soviet Republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. The agency had little online community experience. The lead staff person, Paul Lawrence, working in isolation in Baku, Azerbaijan, went on the web to seek advice and information. A web search led him to an existing international network of folks working in online interaction. He sent individual emails to which three people quickly responded, offering knowledge and support. I was one of the three. We separately offered advice and to some extent mentored him. Out of that initial email interaction, he and I connected and he eventually contracted with me to help his project. Right from the start, Internet connections were a key to this project.

Paul then started bringing in his key counterparts in Georgia and Armenia. They in turn brought in local and regional knowledge that informed the work, and together they created a network that started ranging outside of the project tasks, and into a “community.” This identification of the wider network and the smaller group of key players were critical. In the process of developing the grant tasks an informal “community of practice” (CoP) began influencing the organization and shaping of this and other projects. Ideas were generated, tossed around and shared. Perceptions around communication, collaboration and the practice of international development within the network shifted. Distributed and isolated field staff grew stronger as they supported each other online in their learnings where before they relied on HQ. Through Internet supported communications, they were increasing their capacity daily. And it was not just the small group, but the larger network as well. The group started contributing and adding to the larger network, reciprocating the initial support provided.

So from the international online interaction group there was a seed planted within a project, which supported the development of a multi-country community for field staff of a small international NGO, which in turned spawned a boundary-spanning multi-country community on online interaction for education and community development. Subsequently this community and its larger network has allowed the small NGO to launch very successful online interaction projects around preventing domestic violence and school connectivity in the Caucasus. Small seeds…large trees.

This suggests a series of interactions that moved the looser relationships of a network and the catalytic moment of a project into a sustainable online community.

  • A defined scope of interest or domain,
  • Solidification of relationships and trust through shared task or experience and
  • The catalytic effect of a person or organization who has a driving need for the community.

2. South African Online Communications Network

Network à
Event à
Individual à
Learning Community

In the fall of 2001, a member of an email list I host on online facilitation wrote and asked for leads on potential speakers for a conference in Johannesburg. I recommended Etienne Wenger who was invited to present. Subsequently the conference organizing committee decided to add a component on online interaction and invited me.

Since I was going ALL the way to South Africa, it seemed logical to tap into my network of online facilitators and see what else might be organized while I was there. A former student and colleague in that network, Tony Carr of University of Cape Town arranged for two community based meetings in Johannesburg and Cape Town, inviting folks working with online interaction in a variety of settings, most from academia or NGO sectors.

At both meetings people expressed surprise and delight to connect with each other. Many had been working in isolation and they were happy to share stories and swap tips. But there had not been a locus of attention or energy prior to the gathering – not enough awareness of each other. Through the meetings, enough connections and initial relationships – critical mass — were established that they could move towards a group with more distinct boundaries and commitments. Tony took the initiative to get things organized. He tapped into his network to generate the invitations. And thus an online group was born. That group is now feeling out and defining its domain, community and practice. From a distant network connection, to a tighter network, to the birth of a community we need the importance of both the diversity of connections and the effect of catalytic events and people.

Other Conditions and Stages for Emergence & Growth

These two examples demonstrate that networks, events and projects can be catalytic organic and supportive spawning grounds for community groups and learning communities, particularly for NGOs who may have less chance for learning communities within their organizations (especially if they are small or isolated organizations.). And the networks in turn can help grow and sustain the communities, offering knowledge resources and more members or “new blood.” This synergy between the two, supported by computer mediated communication bridging time and distance, can create conditions for emergence and growth of these learning communities. In addition to the initial connections and catalysts, here are some other factors for emergence and growth.

  • Personal connections – initial connections based on shared interest, reputation and identity are important, especially for relationships that are initially computer mediated.
  • Shared values – in the NGO, shared values can be a “glue” that transcends slightly divergent domains or agendas.
  • Shared needs – motivation to achieve a goal beyond organizational boundaries.
  • Community – a sense of belonging and engagement can be missing for practitioners who are the only one “of their kind” in an organization. It can be missing in diffuse networks. The sense of “we’re in this together” provided by a defined group can be a strong initial motivator, helping launch the community’s online efforts.
  • Skills – Groups and communities who face a lack or low level of skills are motivated to increase their access to expertise and advice to build their own internal capacity. Initial members secured from the wider networks with needed expertise are critical, not only for reputation, but for quick, tangible results from knowledge sharing and building.

Purpose Checklist

So how can we get better at creating the opportunities, catalysts and full deployment of online learning communities and communities of collaboration? Here are some resources.

Designing and Facilitating Online Events (catalyst, remember?)

Purpose Checklist (clarity of purpose as key element!)

Facilitips (processes count!)

More “Online Community” Resources


Add your insights...