Virtual Communities Of Practice: 9 Tips To Engage Participants
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9 Tips To Engage Participants In Virtual Communities Of Practice

Communities of practice are not new. Professionals have always gathered in social learning networks to share information, problem solve, and advance their work. But forming communities of practice in a virtual environment through a webinar is relatively new.

Building a social network and fostering audience engagement online involves integrating technology with teaching techniques and online presentation know-how. Following are strategies that we have tested and found to be especially useful in establishing trust and engaging participants in a virtual community of practice (CoP).

1. Consider The Technology

Technology—and the platform you use for your CoP webinar—can support or hinder your ability to connect with and engage your audience. The more familiar and comfortable you are with it, the easier it will be for you to facilitate and build a community online.

However, if you and your team (if you have one) are novices, keep the technology simple. In short—avoid videos, webcams, screen sharing, and breakout rooms. The technologies that use a lot of bandwidth (like video and webcams) are more likely to crash than enhance your participants’ experience. Good online facilitation is much more important than lots of fancy technology applications.

2. Speak Casually

During the CoP, keep your voice casual, speak slowly and clearly, and imagine you are talking to a single person over a kitchen table. In fact, some facilitators find it helpful to sit across from another staff member during a webinar and pretend they are talking to that person.

This is how speakers are trained on radio talk shows. If you listen to the radio, they actually try to sound more conversational and less like they are presenting. If they do read, they let the audience know they will be reading.

3. Make Introductions

One way to build a trusting community is to let the participants know who is attending the CoP. Try to do this ahead of time, if possible. Give them a list of participants since they cannot see each other.

Online environments are more impersonal than face-to-face meetings, so welcoming each participant by their full name, either verbally or via chat, and making small talk can help counteract this effect. Posting a group chat question inside the virtual room (even something as simple as where they are from or what the weather is like in their town) and then verbally acknowledging anyone who types in a response also gets people to connect and ensures that they can see and understand the chat feature in your platform.

4. Provide Ice Breakers

To build a sense of community, include an opening icebreaker in which your participants introduce themselves to each other and to you. This can be done quickly through the chat box or more slowly by giving each person a few minutes to share. If you ask participants or teams to send in photos ahead of time (which are put up as they talk), this enhances the feeling of community. In larger CoPs, it may be more beneficial for one person to speak for their team and to introduce their type of organization or other relevant features.

If you are holding a CoP series, try to keep the same group of people at each event, if possible. If this is not possible, assign a point person for each sub-group who will represent their team and commit to attend all of them. If you know someone is new to the group, or will be speaking later, introduce that person at the beginning of the CoP so no one is wondering who the new person is.

5. Establish A Structure

After introductions, review the overall goals for the virtual CoP series and share a short agenda. This will establish a structure for your audience. Setting group norms and expectations is also useful. Either post a slide with clear instructions and expectations for the CoP, or come up with them as a group. Expectations may center around what, how, and when you want participants to communicate during the CoP webinar, or how they should contact each other afterward. Clarifying how to interact in this virtual environment is key to helping users feel comfortable sharing online.

6. Lecture Less

Presenting information in less didactic ways will help keep your audience engaged. Most platforms have chat features, polls, timers, and screen sharing features.

A common practice is to give a poll question on a topic you need them to think about, show them the results and then talk with them about what they said. Another strategy is to take live notes that the audience can see on a notepad. This increases the opportunity for interactivity. You can ask for clarification and if they feel heard. Like a flip chart in an in-person training.

Just be careful these features are not overused or distract from a person’s experience. If a new feature malfunctions or is not explained well it becomes an annoyance to your audience. So be sure to test new features before using them.

7. Communicate Clearly And Responsively

Since you will not be able to see if your audience is getting confused in a virtual setting, you have to compensate for this by using written and verbal cues, especially when giving instructions.

Whenever participants reach out to you in the chat or aloud, always respond verbally or using the “chat” function in your platform. If you do not respond, they may assume you are not interested in their ideas. Even worse, they could feel ignored or isolated if their comment isn’t acknowledged.

8. Anticipate Technology Issues

Despite your best efforts, you may experience technical problems so be prepared. It is very helpful to have a few key phrases handy for when someone loses a phone connection or your platform freezes and you cannot advance slides. It will help keep everyone calm if you have these phrases ready to talk your audience through what is happening. A few sentences explaining what is happening can normalize the interruption and keep the meeting on track.

9. Understand Why No One Is Talking

Communities of practice are, in the broadest sense, about communication. So what happens if members aren’t talking? Silence or reluctance can feel like failure, but it is a common pain point in virtual environments.

While no foolproof solution exists to get quiet groups talking, the most effective strategies start from an understanding of why no one is talking. The following are frequent reasons behind less talkative groups.

  • Misunderstanding
    Communities of practice as a concept can mean different things to different people. Some may come in with an expectation of a listen-and-learn environment. Be sure to set expectations before the first event and keep reinforcing the idea of a community of practice as an on-going conversation.
  • Discomfort.
    The online environment can be intimidating for participants because it can feel like public speaking, especially if the event is recorded. When the atmosphere feels overly formal, loosen up the group by using a more conversational and questioning tone. Perhaps start with icebreakers that focus on creating social cohesion before diving into the subject matter.
  • Hierarchy
    Take a look at who is a part of your CoP. Are members true peers or are there hierarchies? Sharing can make members feel vulnerable, especially if their supervisor or funder is participating.  If possible, try to limit membership to peers. Otherwise, encourage leaders to reassure members that they welcome tough conversations, and be attune to hierarchical tensions that may still crop up.
  • Multitasking
    How do facilitators convince participants that giving the CoP one hundred percent of their attention is worth it? A good place to start is to make it a part of your group norms. But what will really make a difference has to do with the agenda. Giving people an agenda and sticking to it can help them get excited about the meeting and prioritize their time.
  • Skepticism
    For some people, communities of practice can feel too abstract. Why dedicate the time to “talking” instead of “doing”? It can be hard to demonstrate the value of a CoP when participants aren’t sold on the premise. For groups like this, reinforce the tangible benefits it provides, like shared resources and access to outside experts. When they feel like they’re getting something out of the group, they’re much more likely to give it their time and attention.

Whatever the reason, it is important to take an encouraging tone. Chastising a quiet group for not participating will likely render them even quieter. Instead, vary the way you are asking members to interact, and between CoPs solicit feedback and suggestions. Celebrate even the smallest moments of interaction and prepare extra material just in case.

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