The monkey on your back?! Hierarchical positions and their influence on participants' behaviour within communities of learning

Martin Rehm, W. Gijselaers & M. Segers


Organizational learning has been identified as a pivotal aspect in contributing to the competitive advantage of organizations (e.g. Argote & Ingram, 2000). However, despite ambiguous results on their effectiveness, traditional programs continue to dominate organizational learning initiatives. In this context, Communities of Learning (CoL) are an innovative methodological tool to stimulate knowledge creation and diffusion among members of an organization’s workforce. Previous research has shown that such (online) collaborative learning processes are significantly influenced by the hierarchical positions of individual participants within these communities (e.g. Romme, 1996). However, little is known about how exactly participants’ hierarchical positions influence individual levels of activity and performance levels within CoLs. The present study provides empirical evidence on 27 CoLs of a global training program, analyzing user statistics from asynchronous discussion forums for 235 staff members. The results of our study not only indicate that participants’ hierarchical position has a significant impact on their general level of activity, as well as their final grade. We are also able to reveal a group of “Stars” that lead their CoLs irrespective of their hierarchal position. Similarly, our findings suggest a certain duality among participants holding the lowest hierarchical positions. While the majority exhibits a “follower” mentality, a smaller subgroup appears to take on roles and behaviours usually assigned to team leaders. By considering these insights, managers of training programs can better anticipate participants’ behaviour and device collaborative learning activities that foster a vibrant learning environment, contributing to higher levels of cognitive discourse and social interaction among participants.

Keywords: community of learning; online learning; organizational learning; hierarchy; diversity

JEL classification codes: D83, I21, I23