Professional Growth through Learning Communities

Knowledge comes with teamwork and fun—all across the organization

June 6, 2011


When we library staff members are struggling to respond to incoming phone calls, email, text/instant messages, tweets, Facebook and LinkedIn updates, and people stopping us in hallways to ask for help, it’s easy to forget that we, too, need learning resources and communities of support.

Many of us who are responsible for organizing and providing learning opportunities recognize that one of our greatest challenges is making the time to continue our own professional development so that we can better serve those who learn from what we provide. We tend to fall into the same trap that our learners encounter: As we keep up with our daily workload, we don’t seek the learning opportunities that are at the heart of our own continuing professional and personal development.

A valuable resource for those committed to professional development is what has become known as communities of learning, communities of learners, or learning communities. The terms, like many others we encounter in our era of instantaneous communication and viral marketing, have become ubiquitous. People like Peter Senge, through his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, 2nd edition (Doubleday/Currency, 2006), have been instrumental in codifying a concept that is widely explored today.

How it’s done

A prime example of a community of learning is the Learning 2.0: 23 Things program created by the Charlotte (N.C.) Mecklenburg Library. In this program, library staff were encouraged to go through an online program where they learned 23 things that they needed to know about Web 2.0 technology. Each week’s lesson came in the form of a podcast and blog post, and participants were required to create their own blogs to record their thoughts and experiences. The participants’ blogs were linked on the official 23 Things site, which not only allowed the participants to communicate and learn from each other but also to go through the experience of learning together. In a February 2007 article in Computers in Libraries “The C’s of Our Sea of Change: Plans for Training Staff, from Core Competencies to LEARNING 2.0,”) Helene Blowers, former technology director for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, recalls a branch manager blogging: “How Learning 2.0 fostered teamwork and true fun I could write about for hours. Every time someone finished we all celebrated with them.”

This “embodies what is truly best about this new and different approach to learning—teamwork and community,” Blowers continues. “Through the process of blogging itself, staff members experienced an online community, but the added benefits of the program were the internal community-building it provided both within branch locations and systemwide. Through the learning and knowledge-exchanging process, self-proclaimed tech novices became experienced Learning 2.0 tutors to fellow staff. As participants’ confidence grew, their discoveries branched out beyond the list of 23 Things to creating avatars, playing with image generators, and constructing fun polls.”

Blowers is not alone in her efforts to inject fun and excitement into the learning process.

Char Booth, former e-learning librarian at the University of California/Berkeley, says, “I think there is excitement in the different learning communities I’ve been involved in at UCB. I have personally tried to up the interest ante of my colleagues in the area of emerging technology learning, which I have done in part by trying to make the tone of my trainings and marketing materials interesting, as well as by creating learning opportunities that sometimes have more of an ‘event’ or ‘to-do’ feel instead of the same old sessions time and again.

“Several of the topics that generated interest were then turned into longer-format technology trainings. . . . It was a great way to generate enthusiasm among a lot of potential learners—highly recommended. I like to moderate and emcee events like this, so I think I often end up being somewhat of a de facto organizational learning cheerleader, which is fine by me.” This spring Booth became the instruction services manager/e-learning librarian at the Claremont Colleges, a newly created role.

Because technological changes are at the heart of programs like Learning 2.0 , those of us who are involved in workplace learning and performance are frequently inspired to seek new ways to do what we have been doing. That includes redefining our communities of learning to take advantage of the tools becoming available to us.

Princeton (N.J.) Public Library Assistant Director Peter Bromberg, for example, cites his Twittersphere as one of the best communities of learning he has joined. “It might be stretching the formal definition of learning community, but I’m comfortable in letting the formal definition evolve to include my experience,” he says.

Some of us are also experimenting with tools including Skype and Google Chat to deliver just-in-time learning to individuals and small groups of learners. Central to these face-to-face and online communities is their ability to provide opportunities when needed.

“The successful ones always seem to create diversity of opportunities—to offer different types of learning experiences as well as avenues for members to create connections between one another and indicate their specializations,” Booth says. “Successful learning communities are all about finding and sustaining a sense of shared effort and interest, and also speaking usefully to an area of actual, practical need.”

Dynamic communities

As we look at successful communities of learning, we find they are sustainable over a long period of time, are sometimes self-sustaining, and are far from static. Just as it is natural for employees to move from one organization to another as their careers progress, membership in dynamic communities of learning changes and evolves.

At Denver Public Library, there is a deliberate attempt to create and support communities of learning, according to Sandra Smith, learning and development manager. It is, she adds, part of what is expected of her, and she has a five-member training committee that supports her efforts.

At the time of our interview, she had already been working for three years to implement the library’s Employee Learning and Growth Program, which she calls “a major commitment by DPL to formalize even more the focus and strategic importance of a highly knowledgeable staff.”

“Every staff person is required, as part of their annual performance review, to do a certain number of learning opportunities and sharing activities,” she continues. “These can be from small to large, and the credit is earned by doing both—the sharing piece is as critical to my goal as is the actual individual learning.”

Creating that program required “intensive communication” with the library’s executive team and the 25-member management team, she adds. That was followed by more than 20 sessions to provide staff with information about the program, including explanations of why the initiative was important “to both the organization and to the individuals working here.” A pilot project in spring 2009 involved 43 library staff members; the complete rollout took place approximately six months later.

“I think our community of learners benefits staff by providing them with convenient methods for accessing workplace learning and development,” says Jay Turner, training manager at Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Library. “My organization provides a rich catalog of online learning content in our LMS [Learning Management System]. Staff members are free to explore the wealth of information therein, go through content at their convenience, and then apply any new or reinforced learning in their work unit.

“I’ve heard anecdotally that some branches have staff members take the same online class at once so that the work unit as a whole can discuss content. That form of shared learning was used by a few branches when we deployed Microsoft Office 2007 for the entire organization.”

Much that goes into developing and nurturing communities comes from the leaders within learning organizations, but as management consultant and trainer Pat Wagner notes, training needs to be part of the overall organization.

“Training in a good organization should be work,” she suggests. “It should be part of the expectation. [Otherwise] it’s stuck on the wall with chewing gum: Everything else you do—and now you have to fit in training.”

A best practice from the business world is to incorporate time for learning into every employee’s schedule on a weekly basis. This can be through formal or informal learning experiences, and we believe that if the time is not scheduled for every employee, it is unlikely that the employee will be able to find the time to participate.

“The main way that people at the top are going to create a learning organization is how people see them as learners,” Wagner says. “My main evidence of it [an organization] as a learning organization is if the director shows up for training. If I walk into a room and there’s the director and there’s the head of HR and there’s the branch managers and there’s the administration—no matter how big or small the library is—I know that’s a learning organization. If learning is for the rank and file then I know it is not a learning organization. There’s a phoniness to it. Because the implication is when you get smart enough and rich enough and high enough in the food chain, one of your privileges is that you are now exempt from having to learn. I love it when I walk into a workshop and there’s the director and I walk up and say, ‘What are you doing here? You could teach this class,’ and they say, ‘I always learn something new and I have to send the right message to staff that learning is what smart people do.’”

It doesn’t take large numbers of people to initiate communities of learning, Janet Hildebrand, former deputy county librarian for the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Library system, suggested before retiring last year. “I believe that by starting with willing volunteers, however few, and putting your energy into supporting them to lead and spread their excitement and demonstrate what can be done, you gradually have more and more people who see that they want to step forward and be involved too, and that eventually reaches a critical mass where they are in the majority,” she says. “In that sense, it becomes more and more perpetuating and self-sustaining in that there is momentum in the direction of trying new things and learning and focusing forward into the future. However, there is always a need for leadership.

“Good training and implementation experiences have to be planned in such a way that they work, or the participants do not have the clear experience of contribution and progress that makes the next one go easily. Many of the participants can become leaders, but there will always need to be leaders, organizers, visionaries for each area of learning.”

Jay Turner reminds us that sustainability among communities of learning comes from the natural appeal of those groups. “My overarching philosophy for supporting workplace learning is to create an atmosphere where learning is fun and where people are empowered to learn on their own terms,” he says. “I do this by making sure that there are relevant professional development opportunities available, ensuring that we have training to support the organization’s objectives, and that everyone can play at some point during learning. I also believe in making myself available formally and informally to all staff members to support them in their growth.”

PAUL SIGNORELLI is a writer, trainer, presenter, and consultant who blogs at Building Creative Bridges. He can be reached at paul[at]

LORI REED, learning and development coordinator for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and founder of Lori Reed Learning Solutions, is a library advocate, learning strategist, performance consultant, coach, speaker, and author whose work appears in professional journals. She serves as the marketing and communication chair for ALA’s Learning Round Table and is the managing editor of

This article is an excerpt from their forthcoming ALA Editions book, Workplace Learning andLeadership: A Handbook for Library and Nonprofit Trainers, to be published this summer.