Community as Classroom, Classroom as Community: A Conversation About Customer Education, Engagement, and Experience


by Dr. Lawrence Eng and Sean McClean


Community and training are poised to alter the landscape of the customer experience. In this article, we’ll discuss the changes that are underway or on the horizon. But before we get started, you should know who we are and where we’re coming from.

Dr. Lawrence Eng: My personal and professional lives have always revolved around communities. I’ve been a member of the anime (Japanese animation) fan community for more than twenty years, and that association let me to earn a PhD in science and technology studies. My graduate work focused on fan subcultures and how they function as informal knowledge communities, and I’m currently the online community program manager for ServiceNow, where I’ve been tasked with improving the customer experience in our online community, with particular regard to the support function.

Sean McClean: My personal and professional lives have always revolved around teaching and training. I’ve been involved in coaching—swimming and diving—and mentoring/docent programs since...well, let’s just say since. Professionally, I got my start providing Microsoft applications training in the 1990s. Over the past decade or so, I’ve been focusing on ITSM training, and I’m currently a senior technical trainer at ServiceNow. In all of these endeavors, I’ve had the opportunity to leverage my postgraduate training in education and psychology.

Lawrence: Since 2012, you and I have been presenting at conferences together, coauthoring articles and white papers, and just sharing ideas in general, despite (or because of) the fact we come from two different domains: education/training and community. Both training and community are ways that customers interface with our company and countless other companies, but they’re not exactly the same.

That said, there are some interesting points of intersection and potential synergies between training and community. What first sparked your interest in community?

Sean: I’ve always been interested in turning training on its side. Since my first adjunct job in graduate school, I’ve wondered if we couldn’t make learning more “sticky” by getting the participants more continually involved and engaged. Trainers think of training as something very time-bound, with a distinct beginning and end, whereas a community is an ongoing, ever-growing entity. Community is an idea that serves customers (and businesses) far better than a one-time training event. Combining the two—one-time training event and ongoing community—seemed like a perfect match.

Through our early conversations, I gained a better understanding of the elements of a community, and how concepts like gamification could elevate communities to a science that could be proactively and methodically managed. That was an amazing insight.

Lawrence: As I’ve already mentioned, my focus has always been on knowledge communities. In my current role, my mission has been to create an online community where people who are essentially strangers, bound together only by their use of a specific product, can interact with each other to get solutions to their problems and share ideas on how to better use that product. In that sense, I want the community to be a major and valuable part of the customer experience—getting support from one’s peers is more significant than just getting answers to one’s immediate questions. This may sound obvious, but it’s not a given. Some organizations, for example, use communities primarily for marketing, though many use communities for marketing, support, and other use cases.

Communities also have an educational component. People who ask questions today are the people who might answer them tomorrow. We can make a case, therefore, that communities are a form of ongoing education where you can learn from anyone (not just the instructor) and at any time (not just during official class times). On the flip side, formal classroom training is great at providing the expertise that people can use within online communities to help others and establish themselves as subject matter experts with real-world experience. In an ideal world, when training and community work together, our customers become exceptionally knowledgeable, and eventually there are more people providing answers and ideas than there are people who have problems that need solving.

Sean: Community definitely plays a role in the context of the “traditional” time-bound instructor-led training mode. After all, any training event is a community of people united by a common learning goal, though their underlying motivations for participating in that event may differ (certification, professional development, just for fun, etc.). As you mentioned though, the recognition of that commonality is not always explicit. Participants often fail to realize the power of community during a training event, but they have as much to contribute to the event’s overall goal as the instructor/facilitator—if not more.

One of the most important concepts that community brings to a classroom is democratization. Traditional training has always been very top-down. But by leveraging community tools and concepts, we can push training out in all directions while maintaining the same learning goal. For example, I can use an online forum to open up a dialogue, and learners can build their own artifacts and participate in ways that drive deeper investigation within the class. As members of a temporary community, with specific learning goals for the class, they can vote with their participation (comments, likes, etc.) in the online forum on the areas that are most useful or important to them, and they can help each other with those areas of focus.

Lawrence: Training events are indeed a form of community, especially when you allow for participant interaction and contribution. The technologies you refer to—forums, commenting, likes, etc.—are typical of online communities, and they can certainly be leveraged to make time-bound training a more communal and democratized experience. In designing such systems, whether from scratch or by leveraging existing online community platforms, the user experience is critical. Small design choices can make or break the value of the experience.

Our industries are evolving so quickly that standing still is essentially the same as moving backwards. By fusing online communities and training, the boundaries of a training event—the relationships between the participants and the knowledge artifacts they create—expand beyond the conferring of certificates and the updating of résumés. Participants can interact meaningfully with each other for as long as they want, and they can continue solving problems together, coming up with new ideas, and exploring avenues for collaboration. Those moments and opportunities don’t end when the notebooks are closed and set aside. In a thriving community, the knowledge acquired by one cohort of learners can live on and help out future cohorts.

Sean: I think you hit upon one of the most exciting things about the integration of classroom and community when you talked about learners moving beyond pen and paper, book and test, and building persistent artifacts: wikis, videos, podcasts, etc. Each of those artifacts can be posted to a community site and shared in a way that helps others learn. Where yesterday’s papers and tests were graded by an instructor (and often left both the instructor and the learners wondering about their point or value), Tomorrow’s artifacts will be evaluated by peers in a community—and the value will be clear to everyone. Daphne Koller delivered a fantastic TED talk on this subject (creating artifacts evaluated by a community rather than just a single instructor).

This isn’t going to be easy for anyone, but it will be fun! Building activities and assignments that go beyond the “flat” test or paper, and yet are clear enough to actually accomplish the goal, is a challenge, but it’s the coolest challenge there is: providing a framework for learners to create something in the classroom that continues to provide value after the class, instead of just being make-work. The key is to stop thinking in terms of discrete events, with beginnings and endings, and start thinking about how you’re going to foster communities of ongoing learning.

Lawrence: I think we agree that the new nature of the customer experience is not just customers interacting with products and companies, but with other customers, partners, etc. How we mediate those interactions, therefore, is critical.

Done well, communities encourage everyone to participate, to benefit from the specialized expertise of others, and to get meaningful credit and rewards for what they themselves know and how helpful they are. Bringing communities online makes things really dynamic; we can automate a lot so people get real-time feedback on their work. Ultimately, it allows communities to become self-sufficient and self-governing, even (or especially) at scale.

If we don’t carefully design and provide compelling community experiences, our customers will inevitably try to create them anyway, without our intervention and with unpredictable results. Thankfully, we have an opportunity today to be proactive and create the best possible customer experiences—where social engagement around our products allows people to become part of something bigger than themselves.

 

Dr. Lawrence Eng is a social scientist specializing in online communities, user research, and otaku studies. He received his PhD in science and technology studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Lawrence has presented his work in popular, academic, and professional settings and has been cited in numerous publications. One of his articles, “The Evolution of Knowledge Communities and Their Impact on Self-Service,” was published in the March/April 2014 issue of SupportWorld. Based in San Diego, Lawrence is currently the online community program manager for ServiceNow.

Sean McClean has been involved in the training and implementation of service manager tools and ITIL processes for governments, academic institutions, and Fortune 500 companies around the world. His dynamic approach to training and development emphasizes learner involvement, participation, and practical application of concepts. He has presented at conferences internationally, including TFT 13 and TFT 14, and he’s been interviewed for ZDNet’s Briefings Direct. He is certified in ITIL (v2/v3 Practitioner, Service Manager, and Expert) and HP AIS Openview, and he’s a certified ServiceNow administrator and implementor. 

Tag(s): customer experience, supportworld

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