Roles in CoP’s Revisited: The Original Post

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(This is the first post in a series of six that is a revision of a post I wrote on ATD’s “Learning Circuit’s Blog” on June 10, 2006 entitled “Roles in CoP’s” in which I introduced the 4L Model of Roles in Online Communities.)

12 years ago I was serving as the Community Manager of ATD’s Learning Circuits Blog (LCB) and we were exploring ways to identify and develop the community around LCB.

On June 10, 2006, I posted “Roles in CoP’s“. In this post, I introduced the “4L Model” for segmenting the constituents of an online community of practice (CoP). The 4 L’s are Linking, Lurking, Learning, and Leading. The post received positive feedback in comments from LCB readers. To my surprise, over the next several years I received a dozen requests for permission to use the post and the accompanying graphic in graduate school course materials and conference presentations.

Recently, in reviewing this post, I had two realizations: 1) For the most part, the model holds 12 years later and 2) it does need some clarification, expansion, and updating to really be of value given the development of online communities since the original post.

Over the next 4 posts, I’m going to do just that.  I’ll start with a quick review of the key points from the original post and then move on to the new conceptualization of the 4L Model.

The Original 4L Model

LINKING – These folks are checking the community out to determine if it might serve their purposes and whether it is worth their time and attention. 12 years ago they were basically invisible to the rest of the community.

the 4L Model of Roles in Communities is represented by concentric circles. From the outside inward - Linking, Lurking, Learning and Leading.
4L Model of Roles in Communities

LURKING – These folks actively pay attention to the community and occasionally participate in various activities.  They may be interested in greater involvement but don’t yet feel comfortable enough yet.  For others, the content of this community may be peripheral to their interests.  Although difficult to identify, the lurkers can be the largest group in the community.  (Change #2 – I incorrectly equated this role with Wenger/Lave’s concept of Legitimate Peripheral Participants (LPP) in the original post).The 4L Model was based upon my experience with LCB and the work of Etienne Wenger, Jean Lave, Richard McDermott, and John Seeley Brown.  It segments participation in online communities into four overlapping roles. (Change #1 – “roles” wasn’t the best word – group or segment of participants is better.) 

LEARNING – This group is the heart and soul of any community. They are actively participating in the community – learning, sharing, co-creating. They are involved in the governance of the community – recruiting new members and grooming to become leaders. (Change #3 – Yellow was a horrible color to use. LOL)

LEADING – The leading group (or individual) creates and promotes the mission, vision, and purpose of the community. “Building a fire” of activity that attracts members deeper into the community and non-members to consider participating.

The movement from one role to another is a learning process for each participant.  Members of the community encourage and model roles for each other in what Seeley Brown refers to a cognitive apprenticeship.  To nurture and grow the community, current members need to provide opportunities for participants to learn from each other and to “try on” new roles.  McDermott speaks of placing benches for members to sit and talk amongst each other. (Change #4 – I, unfortunately, gave these concepts little space in the original post).

The Community of Communities Has Exploded

Twelve years ago, online communities were just beginning to be discussed in L&D circles (remember Facebook opened to the general public in 2006 and Twitter launched in March 2006).  Today, they are indispensable parts of organizations and our day-to-day lives.

There are different types of communities that serve different purposes.  They have memberships of a half a dozen to millions.  Some are “permanent” with large hierarchies and some are intended to only exist for a few months.

New research and thought leadership have expanded what we know and think about communities.  I’ll add ideas from Julian Stodd, John Stepper, the Community Managers’ Roundtable, Fever Bee and others to the mix.

In the next 4 posts, it’s my intent to use some of this new information to build a new version of the 4L Model that might provide insight once again into communities and what they mean to their participants and sponsors.

I hope you’ll join in via the comments to these posts to agree or disagree with my ideas.  Suggest additional thoughts and argue with me to your heart’s delights.  This isn’t about me being right.  It’s about me throwing out some ideas for you and me to learn from.

Coming posts in the series:

So your turn, what do you think about online communities?  Must they be focused on a purpose?  Are there any other scales of characteristics of communities I should add?  What are your thoughts on my categorization of types of online communities?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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