Using Online Communities in Professional Associations: Professional Online Communities Come in Different Forms and Serve Different Purposes, but They All Allow Members to Connect across Time and Space and Enhance Their Skills and Knowledge

Article excerpt

There is a wonderful Swahili proverb about teamwork and the value of relationships that says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." This adage is especially true for those who are seeking to advance their knowledge or accelerate their professional skills. Indeed, this is one of the reasons professional organizations such as SLA exist.

Since 1876, when the American Library Association (ALA) was founded (Holley 1975), library professional associations have focused on increasing their members' skills and efficiency and providing access to information. Members gathered at meetings to discuss best practices in cataloging and other areas, but naturally they exchanged more information and ideas than were indicated by the day's agenda. They came together to discuss the details of their profession within a learning environment dedicated to advancing their skills and knowledge. This is the foundational difference between a general group of colleagues and a professional community (either online or offline), as the latter share a purpose and context for their collaboration and idea exchanges.

Gathering and connecting with peers to share information and best practices--either in person, virtually or both--continue to be key rationales today for participating in a professional association. The difference is that today's associations can take advantage of unique benefits offered by the information technology and communication revolutions we now call Web 2.0 and social media. Traditional person-to-person networks and peer groups will never disappear, but they are being enhanced by new forms of knowledge exchange that offer better support for professional collaboration.

Three Key Fundamentals

It's worth noting that online communities have been around for a while, although the current media attention to this topic would make you think otherwise. Professional online communities have existed ever since ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, was designed by researchers affiliated with the U.S. Department of Defense in the late 1960s, well before the advent of the World Wide Web. Scientists soon began using electronic messaging to collaborate and communicate around the globe, and shortly afterward a number of online communities sprang up to support science and technology education.

Online communities have also been a key part of the academic world for more than 20 years (Howe n.d.). In fact, librarians are often cited as being among the earliest adopters of the Internet and online communities. However, the explosive growth of online activity over the last 10 to 15 years has been driven by the development of collaborative tools that are more useable and, frankly, more engaging for those who lack deep technical skills.

Today there is widespread adoption of online communities, and professional organizations are leading the way in this area for a number of compelling reasons. For these communities to be effective, however, three key fundamentals must be in place:

* The power to convene;

* An engaged group of peers who need to collaborate on substantive topics of interest; and

* A thought leadership position or cause the group is advancing.

These criteria represent the very essence of a professional association and are the reason most professional organizations succeed when they extend their existing in-person community services into the online space. Consider the many benefits a professional association's online community can offer to its members:

Greater access to peers across geographic and time constraints. Too often, our peer-to-peer networks are constrained by proximity--those you know or with whom you interact most frequently tend to be those who are physically closest to you. Through online communities, professionals now have the ability to find and interact with specialists or like-minded peers across the country or around the world. …