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TD Magazine Article

The Digital Meeting Place

Improve employee performance with digital communities.


Mon Oct 02 2023

The Digital Meeting Place

Improve employee performance with digital communities.

Human beings are wired for connection. They thrive when they are surrounded by people who care and are willing to share their experiences. For L&D professionals who desire to lead organizational transformation, digital communities are what you've been searching for. The use of digital communities to accompany workshops, e-learning, and recorded content will enable you to break through one of today's most pressing workplace challenges: how to develop an engaged and diverse workforce that feels included and empowered to achieve their goals in a hybrid work environment.


Given social media's popularity and the fact that people have become more comfortable using digital channels (such as Microsoft Teams and Slack), for communication, digital communities should be at the forefront of your learning strategy. When participants are members of a community, they have access to ongoing opportunities for continuous learning and growth. In addition, communities provide an easy way for members to share resources, access content at their time of need, offer mentorship, attend special events, and participate in discussions. Being a member of a community creates a supportive environment in which participants can share their experiences, challenges, and successes. Having a network of people who can relate to each other's struggles and celebrate the victories builds both confidence and competence.

Digital communities are the pathway to increasing productivity, performance, retention, and other key organizational metrics of success. The results of a training program dramatically increase as participants' time together extends. Further, the addition of a digital community bridges the gap between the learning environment and the business environment; it turns implementation into a collaborative experience for the participant, their manager, and the learning team.

Note, however, that communities are not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each of the three different types of communities—continuous, event, and cohort—has a specific goal.

The continuous community for operational excellence

A continuous community is perfect for specific topics that have ever-changing information, such as operational procedures; a high volume of skills needs, such as position-specific roles; and nuanced, in-the-moment decision-making needs, such as customer service. Simply setting up a Slack channel, Meta Workplace group, or Microsoft Teams chat where individuals can share posts and have a place to ask questions when they get stuck fills the gap between the classroom and workplace.

Although a company may offer manuals, frequently asked questions resources, and videos, such content can overwhelm because they contain too much information for users to consume. Short and engaging tips, links to helpful resources, success stories, and even fun memes can make learning and consuming (often dry) information enjoyable.


A continuous community mimics what people love about social media—they entertain and engage. Plus, social media platforms offer what everyone desires: a place to be valued, seen, and heard.

Similarly, in a continuous community, participants can crowdsource information, ask questions, gain clarity, share successes, and integrate learning into the flow of their workday when they need it most. Instead of content-heavy webinars, limited-impact lunch & learns, and manuals that are often complicated and boring for end users, continuous communities are a place for individuals to be engaged and find more enjoyment in learning and expanding their skills.

The event community to boost content retention

The days of cramming all learning objectives and content into a few hours or a one-time event is a thing of the past with an event community. It provides a home base from which you can drip learning, practice activities, and coaching over a series of days, weeks, or months. Because content is bite-size, participants can easily digest and share it over a longer time period, increasing the much-needed repetition that creates muscle memory.

Event communities are a fraction of the cost of physically bringing people to the same location and reduce the disruption of work that affects productivity. Event communities are like participants having a Netflix series to which they have unlimited access to consume in a timeframe that works for their unique schedules. Further, those communities are amazing for hosting challenges, boot camps, and multiday events.

Run an event community concurrently with the program length; however, I often keep a community open for 90 days postprogram. Doing so enables me to stay connected and engaged with the participants as well as gives me the opportunity to do pulse checks on progress, helping me to uncover sticking points that are blocking implementation.


Note that with an event community, you have more powerful stories and metrics to share with company leadership about the progress toward a goal. I like to screenshot examples of participants building community and showing their support, such as when they:

  • Post quotes, pictures of their work or workplace, or funny GIFs that express their emotions.

  • Share success stories.

  • Ask questions.

  • Share resources or offer advice.

I also collect data and personal perspectives for compelling stories and to share the experience. I have tenured leaders requesting access to a community to see for themselves what's happening—when's the last time a senior leader dropped in on one of your training events?

The cohort community releases resistance

Cohort communities bridge the gap between learning and doing, which is the heartbeat of performance. Because cohorts are traditionally groups of people all interested in achieving the same goal, you can create an emotionally safe space for participants to be uncomfortable as they progress through the process of embodying new skills and levels of impact.

Think of television shows such as Dancing With the Stars and The Voice, which involve cohorts of people learning and practicing together over time. The shows give participants greater access to experts with specialized experience who can coach, guide, and motivate participants.

My favorite cohorts focus less on teaching a skill and more on removing resistance, including developing a growth mindset and sharing practical experience and stories of triumph that only subject matter experts know and have experienced. That is where growth happens, success measures increase, and company loyalty develops.

Cohort communities can vary in length depending on steps or systems. If the goal is a series of steps required to perform a function to a standard level—for example, onboarding, developing skills mastery, or introducing new procedures in a company—design a cohort over a series of four to six weeks.

If the goal is for participants to learn an ecosystem of functions that lead to advanced development—such as leadership; diversity, equity, and inclusion; position bench strength; or career advancement—a minimum of four months to a full year is a better timeframe.

A huge bonus for cohort communities is that L&D will need to develop fewer learning materials in advance because the content, which can be costly and time consuming, comes from the SME's knowledge. SMEs provide guidance and coaching based on their years of experience, so you don't need heavy facilitator guides or long train-the-trainer workshops.

Three-step framework

If you're ready to set up your first community, think like an entrepreneur by failing fast and frequently. It often takes a few tries until things flow smoothly, so don't give up too soon—the success you dream about takes time to catch up to the work you've poured into it.

Step 1: Plan. Include on the planning team a stakeholder from the business, a SME, and a social media manager—but make sure anyone else who needs to have input sees the plan before you start building materials for it.

First, select the community type that will achieve your goals and determine the time length. Each group type has a suggested length of time, but a best practice is for the community to follow the length of the program or initiative it supports and remain available for up to 90 days if it has an end date.

In addition to typical group goals and objectives, include in the strategic plan the purpose, function, measures of success, and resources required (including staffing). Note that if you are new to designing content for social feeds, allocate money for an expert in this area; it is a required skill that will make or break an online community.

Next, select the digital community platform. Ideally, identify technology that already exists in your organiza­tion and that participants frequent in their normal workday. Doing so will increase the usage rates and reduce the amount of marketing required to help make checking in the group a habit for participants.

When choosing the technology, consider features such as being mobile-first; the functionality to upload images, short videos, GIFs, and emojis; and a direct message feature for private conversations.

Define your community guideposts, or rules, that ensure community members use the group for success. Sample components include expectations for community member behavior; who can have access and use of the community; engagement standards; and standards enforcement.

Engagement in the group is key to a successful community that attracts participants. Nobody stays at a boring party, so make engagement a must. Designate a community manager or a group of community managers among the L&D team who enjoy playing the role of host and are willing to start conversations, participate in discussions, and include others in group conversations.

The role of a community manager is to enforce the community guidelines and ensure that new members join the group and know how to be successful. In addition to onboarding new members, the community manager's major function is to cultivate engagement by creating posts, commenting on them, and bringing members into the conversation by either tagging members by name or using direct messages to share insights from the group.

Step 2: Operationalize. Think of this step as setting up a playbook that anyone could pick up and ultimately have a working knowledge of what is taking place in the group. This is something that will expand over time as the community leader implements ideas and measures their effectiveness. The platform will have metrics (such as engagement tracking by post type as well as overall usage by the group) that you can use to measure effectiveness. In addition to that data, pulse questions that enable group members to share insights, feedback, and suggestions are extremely valuable. Communities are for the people, so ask them what they need.

To ensure a cohesive look within the community, define your brand guidelines. This should include a color palette, font style, and community banner. Partner with an expert in visual design.

Further, define the types of posts that the community manager will use. The most common types are quotes, formal welcomes, regular recognitions, conversation starters, and tips. They should follow the brand guidelines and use marketing standards for visually engaging content. (Follow best practices from social companies such as Meta, which includes Facebook and Instagram, to build your skills to design for social feeds.)

You will need to determine the level of access to provide to each of the three user groups: administrator, community manager, and participant. A best practice is to require all posts to receive approval from the community manager, which will ensure that community rules, company policies, and ethical standards are never in jeopardy. Preapproval also gives the community manager an opportunity to connect with participants directly and build deeper connections.

The community manager should have a specific schedule for approving and posting content. Monitor and adjust the schedule as needed based on the days of the week or times of day that community members most engage. Communities are not a "set it and forget it" platform; they require care and nurturing to make them a valuable benefit.

Frequently contributing group members make the best community leads, and they often feel valued when asked to contribute at a higher level.

Have content in the group at launch time; in a continuous community, have a welcome thread. These are examples of posts that can immediately add value:

  • A welcome video should share the value of the community for participants—make sure it speaks to participants' why, not yours. Keep it simple, conversational, and enjoyable to watch.

  • A post that encourages community members to introduce themselves and share a piece of information will build rapport and connection.

  • Posts that require one-word answers or emojis get the best results.

  • Poll questions are also a simple way to create immediate engagement and get participants to interact.

The best communities are built on enjoyment. Although it may feel as if memes, cat pictures, and other entertainment-focused posts don't belong at work, the opposite is true. Creating opportunities for participants to connect on commonalities in sports teams, books, music, TV shows, and other more personal posts are what keep people coming back for more.

Step 3: Activate. It is time to open the doors and bring the people to the group. Be ready to nudge, remind, and share reasons for individuals to come back again and again until they establish muscle memory to return on their own.

Invite users to the community like you would to an event; send an invite to a launch party. Bonus points if you include prizes or giveaways ranging from digital badges or points on a leaderboard to more tangible items that participants can win in a contest.

Have a secondary form of communication to connect with participants when they aren't on the community platform. For example, use text messages or an email distribution list to send communications that spotlight fun, interesting, or new things happening in the community. A minimum of one time per week is a good standard; adjust as needed throughout the duration of the community.

Every digital platform has a nudge feature to gently remind participants to return to the group, which is a powerful feature to ensure groups stay top of mind. Ask participants to turn on notifications to activate the reminders. Also use a tagging system (for example, @JohnSmith or @everyone) to spotlight members and build momentum.

Keep it social

Developing and maintaining a digital community requires part skill, part intuition, and part trial and error. Be willing to take imperfect action and be flexible and open to feedback that will lead to success. Ask the community for regular feedback and suggestions about the quality of the experience or the level of impact.

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