Social learning spaces – and how community managers help make room for uncertainty

In the fellowship program that I run for scientific community managers we often refer to how a community manager needs to “create the space” for productive interactions to occur between community members. Other variants of the phrase that I’ve heard or used are “creating the container”, “tilling the soil” or “holding the crucible” in which the alchemy of new knowledge generation happens. But what does this somewhat cryptic phrase “creating the space” actually mean? We’re not literally talking about moving chairs out of the way or building a box big enough to hold people in, are we?

Diving lessons – how do we hold uncertainty together in a learning space? Image credit:

One important perspective that individuals such as Brené Brown bring when they use the phrasing “creating the container” is that of the emotional, integrative work required to create a forum in which interactions feel safe for all participants. That approach speaks a lot to personal development, modern leadership and to how we understand diversity, equity and inclusion.

In this post I want to take a related but distinct perspective held by social learning theorists and systems thinkers – that of holding a space where learning can take place.

At the communities of practice working retreat that I attended last summer, social learning consultants Bev Trayner and Etienne Wenger shared their elegant definition of the three factors that are required for a social learning space.

  1. The contributor comes to the space with a desire to make a difference (what I term the MOTIVATION)
  2. The contributor stays in the learning interaction with others using the ability to work with uncertainty (I call it the MECHANISM)
  3. And the contributor refines their thinking in the social learning environment by incorporating feedback (leading to MASTERY)


Let’s take a look at each of these factors in turn…

1. Motivation – and the desire to make a difference

Why is it that your community members want to participate in the group? What challenges are they encountering that they can’t solve on their own but that they are motivated to find a solution to? Being able to articulate those pain points and why solving them matters –  or those higher goals and values that the individual aspires to – will signpost what it is that the members need to do together.

One example is that group members are looking for mentoring about the specific circumstances that they’re encountering, such as being a first generation college student or having a baby while doing a PhD. The mentors may feel strongly about the importance of mentees succeeding, perhaps because they encountered the situation themselves and wish to help others to avoid the pitfalls that they experienced. In turn, the mentees could have multiple reasons for wanting to access the practical advice and emotional support that could help them to succeed. Perhaps they want to show their younger siblings options that are open to them, or they want to balance family life and work life in a way that results in both being fulfilling. All of these fall under the desire to make a difference.

Another example is that the group members want to take practical action to address a systemic challenge that needs diverse perspectives in order to find solutions, such as how to improve academic peer review. The desire to make a difference may include wanting to improve research reproducibility, or give reviewers greater credit for their contributions, or provide better training for reviewers, or to make the the review process less political.

Note – not everyone has to want to make the same difference to be a member of a community. In the examples above there are multiple ways in which “making a difference” could be expressed while falling under an umbrella of shared spaces and activities that can accommodate the whole community.

Thinking about your involvement in any community where learning is taking place, can you identify a desire to make a difference in yourself or in others? Do you share the same desire to make a difference, or are there multiple distinct motivations visible?

2. Mechanism – how we work with uncertainty

The next factor in a social learning space is how to get comfortable with uncertainty. Typically, we find uncertainty threatening, confusing, frustrating, or just plain awkward. Think of how disorienting it can feel to turn up to a meeting with no clear agenda and no one facilitating. Or when a difficult conversation peters out into an unplanned silence that everyone wants to fill – because it’s excruciatingly uncomfortable – but they doesn’t know what it’s safe to say next.

This model isn’t advocating for chaos, or a complete lack of programming. It’s encouraging us to explore how to support the process of temporarily leaving our comfort zone that we go through when we learn a new thing. How can we do that in a way that doesn’t trigger panic, or bad behaviour, or others in the group (accidentally) shutting us down while we’re still exploring, because they also want to get to certainty fast?

I’m really interested in how we work with uncertainty online. It’s hard enough in person when you have visual cues and can read one another’s interactions. But with asynchronous communications and pauses that you can’t always interpret accurately, how do we leave space for learning to occur – and to accommodate different types of learners – as we might in a classroom or other in-person situations?

What does learning look like in the online spaces that you’re familiar with? Is it always synchronous? What clues are there that people might be exploring uncertainty together – such as asking lots of questions of one another, thinking out loud, brainstorming multiple perspectives before trying to narrow down to decisions or solutions? Is anyone getting left out of these dialogues? How might you actively encourage comfort with uncertainty?

3. Mastery – gathering feedback and incorporating it

In the third aspect of a social learning space, group members need to get feedback on their learning and then to incorporate it into the ongoing group activities. For example, if you’re running a community of practice of social media managers at your organisation, do you make time in your regular get togethers to share how specific campaigns went – not just in terms of metrics, but things that were learnt along the way? How deep does your feedback go? Is it surface deep “likes” and other forms of quick validation like a round of applause, or do you engage in regular retrospectives?

Feedback can serve the additional function of constructing a shared narrative for the group because by talking through what happened, and what we learned, we create a shared story about what works, what matters and how we share, give credit, and course-correct together. The role of a community manager here may include conflict resolution and the emotional integration and cultural awareness that helps the group to collectively move towards a shared understanding.

How do you handle feedback – both positive outcomes and things that didn’t work out? Is it safe to fail and are learners supported in picking themselves up to try again? What does that look like in an online community compared to an in-person group?

Reflecting overall on this model, are you addressing all three of the components of a social learning space or have you been focusing on one over the others?

Further reading

  • Holding tension has come up for community managers before. Check out Wenger-Trayner’s compelling web of skills that I discussed in an earlier post.
  • Coping with uncertainty is also a trait of entrepreneurs – something we considered here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s