In 1994, I felt that there were many people around the world interested in the learning organization ideas and trying to apply them in organizations. Ours was a new and growing field with no wide-reaching vehicles to connect people together into a community. Based on my experience with Learning-org, here's my recipe for using modern internet technology to connect a world-wide group with common interests.
Learning-org is free to subscribers. Because it's free, the workload has to be small enough that I can keep my "day job." My recipe pays particular attention to creating the largest impact with a minimum of effort.
1. You'll need a good internet provider. Find one a) with a local, toll-free call for you, b) that will support your mailing list (regular and digest options, with either Majordomo or LISTSERV software robot), c) that lets you create your own ftp site and web pages, and d) that has a track record for dependability and for managing capacity. I use World in Boston.
2. Start with e-mail because it has the broadest reach. Ask your provider to establish a mailing list. Choose these options: moderated by you, robot handles subscribe/unsubscribe automatically, subscribers can opt for regular or digest version. Write a text file with basic info for subscribers and set up the robot to dispense it automatically.
3. Spread the word everywhere. Create a one-paragraph invitation on paper and as a text file. Spread it at conferences, meetings, in e-mail messages, etc. Ask people to tell their friends. Create a web page and list it with the popular index services (Yahoo and Lycos). You can also list it with the "list of mailing lists." (In my case, I needed to give subscribers a longer description, so my invitation just tells people how to send an e-mail message to obtain further information from the robot. For most mailing lists, the invitation provides "how to subscribe" instructions.)
4. Getting the ball rolling: For long term success, the discussion must create it's own accelerating momentum. You can't keep it moving by your own efforts (you'll run out of gas), but you can do a lot to get it launched. I tried various tricks to get the discussion going on the learning-org list; none worked until one of the subscribers said, "If this were a normal meeting, we'd introduce ourselves -- I'll start..." So, ask people to introduce themselves.
5. Create the environment: Your mailing list is 'moderated' which means you approve all postings before they get distributed. Use this power to keep junk off the list and to keep the discussion appropriately on topic. I regularly reject junk items sent to the list address, including: Return-Receipts, Undeliverable Notices, "spam" advertisements, messages asking "How do I subscribe?," off-topic notices and announcements, etc. In addition, many people accidently send msgs to the list address when they mean to reply just to a single person; gently return these to the sender. Finally, stop flame wars before they start. All this is to create a clean environment so subscribers don't waste their time.
6. Provide appropriate focus and variety: This is the hardest part of your job as moderator. You'll want to keep things sufficiently on-topic that your subscribers find a high percentage of interesting material. But, you want to have enough variety so that it's learningful and stimulating. Some of our best threads on Learning-org started at the periphery, not in the center of our topic area. Be selective, but not too selective.
7. Use multiple delivery vehicles to broaden your reach. Each day, I put new messages into a monthly archive file, copy the archive to our ftp site (where it's accessible by ftp and gopher), and process the same archive file with hypermail to create web pages. All this is quite automatic, so with negligible effort, our material is available by e-mail, ftp, gopher, and the world-wide-web. If I were charging subscribers, I would offer a fax deliver service and key-word selectivity to extend the reach even further. The web will ultimately be the best way for most people to participate.
8. Index your material so people can find older items. I submit our pages to Lycos. Ask your provider if they can support other index and search facilities for your material.
9. People aren't very good at keeping and finding things. Create a short message with important reminder information and send this to your list once a month. Mine includes: how to unsubscribe, how to post a message, authors' guidelines, how to spread the word, and how to reach me.
10. Be visible, but not overbearing: Put "Host for xx mailing list" in your sig; post messages on the mailing list; add "Host's Note: ..." where appropriate in other people's messages. Thank people who post messages. Be clear in your own mind what are the norms for behavior and insure they are demonstrated in fact. It'll be more of a community if the norms are visible and if people know there is a host who welcomes their presence and contributions.
11. Protect yourself from pranks: set up the mailing list robot so it will not advertise your list name and will not give out the list of subscribers.
12. Don't bite-off too much: My family kids me that the Learning-org list is like another child in terms of the attention it requires. Push people to be self-sufficient. You can't possibly trouble-shoot every different mail problem, but be especially careful about problems introduced by changes at your supplier. Will you help people get onto the internet? With Learning-org, I'm glad I decided not to do so.
Majordomo & LISTSERV: talk to your internet provider; technical discussion is in comp.info-systems.mailing-list-managers
list of mailing lists: in news.lists, find "List of Publically Accessible Mailing Lists"
ftp, gopher, creating web pages: see any of the popular internet texts
Contacting me: Richard Karash <firstname.lastname@example.org>