Great Learning Starts With Communities

Creating a sense of organizational community helps increase employee engagement and retention in a multigenerational workforce.

With today’s multigenerational workforce, ranging from traditionalists to the baby boomers to Generations X and Y, learning leaders face the challenge of building continuity along with individual development amid a divide in workplace values.

Each generation holds a unique set of values. Traditionalists, those born before 1946, value core skills and hard-nosed standards; the baby boomers, born just after ’46, value hard work and multi-tasking; and Generations X and Y embrace the development of technology. Each is tasked with coming together for a common purpose: to work toward the success of a business.

Add in a perilous economic climate, where workers are consistently worried amid job cuts and corporate restructuring, and learning leaders feel pressure to bridge these differences toward continued development, greater training and success.

“Those are all realities in today’s marketplace that organizations have to struggle with,” said Susan Cain, a partner at the Corporate Learning Institute, a Chicago-area learning and development training consultancy. “What we’re talking about is not only building community and communities of people that can practice and collaborate together, but also developing the concept of individual job enrichment.”

Building greater job enrichment will grow more important as baby boomers begin to retire and younger generations take over, Cain said. Because Generations X and Y require greater meaning and engagement in their work, Cain said learning leaders will have to put more emphasis on development that builds continuity within organizational ranks.

Building more effective corporate communities, whereby these divergent groups learn to come together on a deeper level, offers a plausible solution for learning leaders. Effective community building unites a workforce, increases employee engagement and enhances the opportunity for continued learning and leadership development, Cain said.

The Corporate Learning Institute is one of many companies that work to help organizations develop a greater sense of community. The institute champions a work environment where employees connect on a more personal level, developing a sense of openness, belonging and honesty.

To train organizations, it leads learning sessions akin to a town hall meeting, where employees gather to unite, share and build a sense of belonging. This is the starting point for organizations looking to build community. “What we’re suggesting is you have to see community building as an investment, as you would see an investment in a new product,” said Tim Buividas, also a partner at the Corporate Learning Institute and one of the authors, along with Cain, of a recently published white paper, “Building Effective Communities: Defining Community and How to Build It Within Your Organization.”

The town hall-style session allows organizations to gather vital members to converse about the current needs and concerns — both individually and organizationally. The idea, Cain said, is for the group to present those concerns and needs, understand the diversity of opinions without judgment and consider new options for group cohesion and communication.

“To me, community is a symptom of effective leadership,” Cain said.

The notion of community building in this sense is initiated by Peter Block, author of several books on the subject. Most recently, he co-wrote The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. He also wrote Community: The Structure of Belonging, which Cain said the Corporate Learning Institute uses as a basis for its community training. The book proposes six elements of conversation that are used in the town hall meeting:

Invitation: According to the Corporate Learning Institute’s white paper, invitation is a call to create an “alternative future start.” Essentially, this step is reaching out and allowing members of the organization to choose if they would like to be part of the community.

Possibility: This step requires small group members in the town hall to converse to evaluate the current mission of the organization or department and ask what could be changed. It is where the group comes together to envision a common goal or purpose.

Ownership: As Cain and Buividas put it, this stage is about getting people’s “butts on the line.” In other words, it means asking people to take responsibility of the change effort.

Dissent: This conversation is about giving people the opportunity to say no. The point of this step, Cain said, is that leaders need to gain an understanding of what people do not want in order to create a shared vision.

Commitment: Once a community vision is created, Block’s framework asks members to take accountability for the organization’s goals.

Gifts: This final portion of the meeting asks the group to share each other’s personal strengths and to envision how those strengths can be put into action.

“One of the interesting things about the town hall meeting is you stand and make a series of declarative statements using ‘I,’ not ‘me,’” Cain said. “So you’re not hiding behind anybody else. You’re just who you are.”

“I thought it was a very powerful session,” said Mark Becker, partner at C/D/H, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based technology-consulting firm. C/D/H typically holds what it calls “Thriving Through Chaos” training meetings quarterly, but in 2009, amid financial hardship, it decided to use the town hall-style community training session to build a greater sense of community among its employees.

C/D/H took a day off to hold the meeting, and as they went through each of the conversations, the company’s 30-some employees broke off into groups, which made facilitating the process easier, Becker said.

“There was a real openness and honestly in the group,” Becker said. “You get people looking at their situation.”

Participating in the session, Becker said, helped the company emerge from its financial rut. The development created a greater understanding and cohesiveness among all employees in the firm. “By the end of the year, we were starting to pick up financially,” he said. “So in 2010, we were off to the races.”

But larger organizations may find it more difficult to initiate this sort of training in its learning environments. Because the session asks for smaller groupings, conducting a town hall-style training session to create this sense of community might be better served on a department or small group level.

Efforts to create community and meet the demands of a workforce seeking more meaning will require learning leaders to be more intentional in their community building efforts, which will provide for a greater avenue for increased learning and individual development.

“It’s intentional; it isn’t left to the whim of fate or chance,” Cain said. “If you’re going to consciously build tighter community, increased innovation among groups in an organization, there’s no leaving it to chance.”

Becker expressed a similar urgency. “Instead of getting smacked around by the economy and being reactive, are we going to get into the driver’s seat and be proactive and turn ourselves around and make a change?”

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at