Enterprise Microlearning

If you can’t fathom how Twitter can help your company, read on.

When a student opened fire on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007, the school had no systematic way to alert those in harm’s way. In the days that followed, organizations nationwide began asking, “Does my organization have the ability, in a few minutes, in the event of a crisis, to notify everyone involved?” What if fire, an earthquake, an explosion, or a hurricane rendered our email and phone systems useless? How would people receive information critical to their lives?

Today organizations are considering how to systematically use micromessaging, an emerging communications channel, made possible by Twitter and tools like it, to connect with the people they care about most. It allows organizations to reach people’s desktops, laptops, and devices already in pockets and purses without any dependency on local email servers or a phone tree.

In a few compact sentences, these utilities can quickly and effectively convey text or image messages across an extended enterprise, a decentralized workforce, a dispersed campus, a community of practice, a small group of friends, or just one person who needs to know.

Also referred to as microblogging, microsharing tools prove enterprise software need not be boring and difficult. It can be easy, engaging, portable, and rewarding.

With the unveiling of enterprise-focused Twitter cousins such as Yammer, Socialtext Signals, Socialcast, and Present.ly, managers can now bring microsharing capabilities in-house with the security of working behind the firewall to protect confidential information and the potential for explicit links back into enterprise-strength systems.

Enterprise microsharing can help address the dueling dilemmas organizations face — needing to move knowledge where people need it now as they work through business processes, while relieving worries and fears information is leaking out of the organization too easily.

Although some execs ban these tools and consumer counterparts widely available today, doing so leaves their organizations out of an important loop encompassing customers, partner networks and, even, families. Human Resources Executive has featured these tools on their front page several times in the last few year and technology market consultancy Gartner added microsharing to its list of technologies that will transform business over the next two to five years.

Twitter, a public microsharing network used by many early adopters, has become an integral part of my own professional practice and personal brain-building. I use it to connect, share, and discover information far beyond any other network. I’ve grown to realize the field might better be thought of as micro-learning where the conduit is tiny and the lessons spread are vast. Across an enterprise — be it around the globe or down the hall — the learning potential is endless, while the opportunities to connect to knowledge are exploding in number and variety.

I use it in a way similar to how I touch base with my friends and family, briefly and frequently, and I now extend that level of care to involve my coworkers and business partners. I can find someone to review an article as effortlessly as I can offer personal experience to a colleague on how to select a webinar platform or which organizations have successfully launched their own brand Wikipedia. This is all akin to the magic of open-source software, created through public grassroots collaboration.

Whether I’m working remotely or onsite, I find microsharing (micro-learning?) mediates a conversation where what we’re learning is not merely exchanged. Knowledge is extended, transformed, reshaped, and built on as we actually create new trains of thought.

See if any of these other benefits would prove valuable to your extended organization and your developing communications plans.

Individualized Updates

The meeting in the Wintergreen room moved to Culpepper… The sandwich cart won’t be downstairs today… The supplier has only two mini-laptops left… Reviews are due on Friday… A colleague can’t make the pitch in the morning so I’m on… Email is sent… Directions are scribbled on paper affixed to a door… A high priority phone message is left… I wade through fourteen screens. Ugh. Everyday stuff.

More common than occasional safety announcement, companies have operational updates that need to reach people at certain times to coordinate the dance that is an organization. There’s information each participant in an organizational ecosystem needs to learn to successfully help that enterprise succeed. This information can be broadcast to those needing a reminder about the speaker in the auditorium (until it becomes habit that’s the place to be Friday afternoons), narrowcast to groups like those whose meeting locale has changed or directed to individuals who have paperwork being processed.

Although most messages are generated by people (for instance someone from HR, accounting, at the front desk or in legal), some can be automated to inform people at critical times. An order processing system can kick out events and exceptions. A benefits system can signal coverage changes and enrollment deadlines. A learning management system can prompt it’s time for a certification renewal or a newly available online course. Microsharing systems offer unified access for information relevant to each of us, one at a time and all at the same time.

Yet that’s still only half of the story for organizational communication. I can follow news about my meetings, my paperwork or my provisions and I can also — here’s where it gets exciting — (at my own peril) select to be blissfully ignorant. We are far more attentive when we can actively choose to pay attention to what matters to us, and we feel the most empowered when we can select to organize our lives in ways that don’t overwhelm us and actually create value. Microsharing can be:

Me-centered. When individuals, rather than senders or suppliers, choose who to and how to trail interesting people, groups or even favorite key words, it heralds the beginning of a Network of Me. As needs and interests change over time, messaging systems let us adjust our inputs and conversations quickly. The network becomes a distributed relevancy mechanism to reach me wherever I am and on my own terms.

Free-market. Offer me information that matters to me, and I’ll follow what you have to say. Spit out junk, and I will stop the flow of information to the device in my hand or the screen in front of me. Instead, I’ll relegate it to the more cumbersome systems, available in the background, and look at them only when I have extra time.

Borderless options. There is a nothing to stop an organization from also publishing (or even just syndicating their micro bursts) to the intranet, communications wiki, personal dashboards, or even an electronic ticker tape running through the lobby.

Nestled between the big blocks called work, microsharing enables a people-focused value network and truly modern supply chain. Everyday stuff.

Collective Intelligence

A teammate goes to a conference and promises to share highlights in real-time… Anyone know the source of this stat I heard on my way into work?… I want to include customer stories in a whitepaper I’m writing… Is there a way the spreadsheet template can provide mean rather than average?… I’m new around here and wonder if anyone could use my expertise… My stuff and your stuff, together.

Too frequently organizational knowledge-sharing mirrors the news-cycle society around us, in which we share the highs and lows, ignoring the ordinary stuff in the middle. It’s in that middle ground people make sense of the work done around them, understand how we can play a part to help fulfill the vision, and know where we can turn to find the help we need. It’s the middle stuff that’s truly interesting and helps us connect with one another.

One message I saw said, “You all make me feel like I’m always surrounded by the most brilliant people on earth.” Another said, “I can get an answer to practically any question within minutes!” When we were beside one another as we did the work, we conveyed the information flow with every breath. Now to get smarter, we must connect intentionally.

Although receiving news from the enterprise meme-stream helps us work within the systems around us, learning with and from the people around us (physically or virtually in our space) increases organizational value.

Information we glean from one another exhibits bird-like flocking behavior, joining with other information that adds more value to it, creating clusters of concepts with the capacity to become something stronger than we can come up with alone.

Effortless-discovery. Learning often entails asking people how to do things. The trouble is, no matter our age, we customarily ask the person closest to us rather than someone known to have the right answer. Microsharing helps us reach the right people without even requiring us to know who they are. You can also enlist help en masse by asking large groups of people to focus on the same issue for a short burst of time to quickly bring about a creative solution.

Far-reaching collaboration. Most microsharing services require only an Internet connection so your colleagues and stakeholders in Australia, Ireland, Russia, Mexico and North Carolina can communicate, cooperate, and share information at the same time. Adding business partners, investors and customers in the learning mix no longer requires complex planning.

Culture-trickle. By identifying a few key influencers, new hires can follow ephemeral information and vetted practices can be shared easily and in real-time with little burden on a designated guide. A directory of personable resident experts, followed through microsharing with one click, makes targeted communication more efficient. Because these tools record exchanges, other people can watch how a concept, plan or project evolves.

In conjunction with individuals’ personal stream of reflections and observations, possibly with a link to a source for additional detail, the intelligence we gather and share becomes transparent and available to everyone. Organization power. My stuff and your stuff, together.

Social Seaming

Liz in benefits rocks… I need more sleep… This project is going to change the world… Extra sandwiches in Culpepper (not everyone showed for the meeting)… Who borrowed my stapler?… My kid’s sick, heading home, ping me there. Stuff in between.

How we feel influences our productivity in both subtle and obvious ways. Something fills the moments between doing our work and reading all the lame emails preventing us from reading messages that matter. It contributes to us feeling on target or out of sorts. If those empty “thanks” and “lights on in the parking lot” notes moved to a microsharing system, one where we could choose to follow based on the quality of posts or the interest we had in what someone said, we’d probably free up enough time to contribute to the flow, too, and get back to feel on.

These slender messages are interstitial; they lie in and fill the seams of organizations. The threads help us collectively construct understanding, foster new connections and grow existing bonds, making for more agile perspectives, tighter teams, and resilient morale.

Detail intimacy. As organizations and society-at-large dismantle boundaries between personal and work life, they enrich corporate cultures as well as foster greater productivity and loyalty from people who have long-dreaded leaving their private life in the parking lot as they walked through the door. Microsharing, the technological equivalent of water-cooler chat, offer us clues into those around us, leading us to help one another because we know and trust one another. It’s in the little learning moments where we’re reminded Jeff isn’t only a guy in product development, but a parent with a daughter about the same age as my son. Clients frequently tell me they have learned more about their coworkers and customers from their micro-messages and social media profiles than they have from working together for years.

Social serendipity. From technical information to breaking news, from what my friends are thinking about to what I need to be looking at and thinking about. These tools work similarly to how we converse while passing one another in the hallway, representing a live ecosystem that shifts from moment to moment, where it’s easier, faster and more effective for us to brain dump as events happen in a live and ongoing environment.

Life-stream immediacy. If you’re thinking, “…but my people have real work to do,” ask yourself this question: In the two minutes they have between a phone call and a report, would it be better for them to be sharing what they learned on the call or asking for insight for the report, rather than doodling, making a shopping list, or checking on their fantasy football spread? People need down time, change of pace time, rhythm of the day time, and for those of us who have discovered a gold mine in their micro-messages, we’ve been able to stay on task and gain a little peace. In-between.

Organizations are human creations and they change as people change. They adapt to serve social needs. Real-world knowledge sharing is social, business, and technical all rolled into one. An enterprise is an ecosystem of various parts all working together, even when they don’t know exactly how, and offering a simply way to reach the parts that doesn’t hamper the work getting on already can help us make great change. Micro-blogging is the capillary system.

Poet Nikki Giovanni said at the memorial service for those at Virginia Tech, “[we] embrace our own and reach out with open heart and hand to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think, and not quite what we want to be.”

Originally published on Fast Company’s Learn At All Levels by Marcia Conner.

[photo credit: Ray Kroc, Thomas Hawk]
Enterprise Microlearning