The article is reprinted from the August 2009 T+D
Think Twitter is just for narcissists with too much time on their hands? Think again. Workplace learning professionals have begun to realize a learning return. If you’re not part of this social networking phenomenon, you risk getting left behind.
Stephen Hart, a corporate trainer specializing in recruitment and management training, read about Twitter in a computer magazine. He questioned the value of the “microblogging” tool and its 140-character messages. Yet he was curious and signed on. After a month of dipping in and out, he still believed the site to be pointless and void of business benefit. To prove to himself that Twitter wasn’t worth his time, he ran an experiment, posting a personal development idea or quote each day from his @edenchanges account. He didn’t imagine anyone would care.
A week later, a dozen people had signed up to read his posts. In Twitter parlance, they “followed” his “tweets.” Some repeated ideas he had posted originally. They told him they followed him because he provided thoughtful messages that affected their work. He began to follow some people back. Their updates introduced fascinating notions and lively exchanges. He realized Twitter wasn’t simply about blogging and posting thoughts online. It connects people around shared interests. His perspective began to shift.
Twitter is for smart people, too
Hart isn’t the only one who at first thought Twitter was pointless. Even experts refer to it as a dumb technology. When people expect Twitter, in itself, to be deep, meaningful, or complex, they often dismiss its microsharing outright, never looking back. Type 140 characters into a little box in the wee free moments you have?
Yet people across the globe—people smarter and busier than you—use Twitter and its enterprise-strength counterparts including Yammer, Present.ly, Socialcast, and Socialtext Signals. They may doubt its value at first, but when they wade into the stream, they find it invaluable and a complete surprise.
What are your doubts? You—like many learning professionals who have yet to try Twitter—may think you have too much to say, nothing to say, or not enough time. Perhaps you believe Twitter was not designed for the training department but for young people who like to waste time. Maybe your company blocks its use, you find it too overwhelming, or you don’t know anyone else who is using it. Or, is your excuse simply that you don’t know how to use Twitter?
1| I have too much to say
At first it may take several posts to convey your meaning, though in time you’ll discover more precise ways to write. Amid shrinking attention spans and economic distractions, we all need skills to craft clear and concise messages. Once mastered, you can apply this sharpness to other venues: when answering questions, writing crisp instructions, or making a case for launching something new. Just because you can explain more doesn’t mean you should. Be brief, even if becoming more succinct takes time.
Use your 140 characters for interesting statistics, personal analysis, or as a launch pad to longer and more finessed content on your blog, an online course, or any compelling site. Link people directly to what you see, and tell them why you care.
2| I don’t have time
If you think, “I have real work to do,” ask yourself this question: In the two minutes between a phone call and a meeting, could you share what you learned on the call and seek insight for the meeting? What about while waiting for a webinar to start or, if you carry a mobile phone, in line at the grocery store or the post office? Turn your open minutes into learning moments.
When you connect with people on Twitter who share your professional and personal interests, you may also save time. They’ll point you to vetted materials in less time than it would take for you to scan through Google results or an RSS feed. Your network distributes useful information to you wherever you are and on your own terms.
3| I have nothing to say
Twitter’s question, “What are you doing now?” can mislead you. Most people don’t answer that question. Instead, they answer an unsaid question such as, “What has your attention,” “Can you assist me,” or “What did you learn today?” Answering these questions encourages you to mindfully reflect on what’s occurring around you and to consider what’s on your mind.
Dave Wilkins (@dwilkinsnh), executive director of product marketing at Learn.com says, “Twitter is not for sharing the minutiae of my day. I use it to share the insights and sources that shape my professional thinking, and to connect my professional dots.”
Too frequently, organizational knowledge sharing mirrors our news-cycle society, sharing the highs and lows and bypassing the ordinary links in between. Through that middle ground you can frame work done around you, understand how you contribute to the organization’s vision, and find the help you need.
4| It’s not designed for the training department
Even at its best, formal training can deliver only so much. People need more information, knowledge, and skills for their jobs than any organization provides. Learning happens between people, while doing their jobs, and in the context of groups and interpersonal communication. As Tom King (@mobilemind), an interoperability evangelist for Questionmark, says, “Twitter provides a means for learners to update learners before trainers can update training.”
Twitter also helps trainers prime the conversation in the days leading up to a course or e-learning rollout. No way to reach participants beforehand? Create and collect Twitter usernames during your program and use the medium for follow-up and culling examples of practical applications. Your Twitter exchanges after events establish a social support network, ensuring that learning doesn’t stop. You can also use Twitter to point people to updated materials and related interactions within social media blogs, podcasts, wikis, and topic-based online communities.
5| I can’t participate because my company blocks its use
Consider signing up for a personal account from home so that when your employer loosens their restrictions, you’ll have experience with the tools. Each day organizations across industries are amending their strict policies as they realize employees have iPhones in their pockets, and a younger, more digitally minded generation expects their workplace to support online engagement.
With the emergence of Twitter-like tools for the enterprise, even the most security-conscious organizations can bring microsharing capabilities in-house. Some even offer the safety of working behind a firewall to protect discussions around confidential, proprietary, or personally identifiable information.
6| It’s only for young people wasting time
CEOs and industry leaders of all ages are beginning to use Twitter. Microsharing provides them an opportunity to open dialogues within their organizations, throughout enterprises, and with potential customers. By responding to a few words and a question mark, people provide expert testimony, gut-level hunches, and a field view that organizations might never capture otherwise.
Are senior leaders telling their Twitter followers what they had for lunch? Probably not. Are they distributing observations while waiting for a delayed flight? Maybe. Do they believe microsharing offers business value? Certainly.
My professional network of more than 2,000 collaborators helps me learn about industry innovations and promising enterprise practices, and puts them into context on a schedule that works for me.
7| It’s overwhelming
Twitter is a serendipity engine. Rather than expecting yourself to keep up with every tweet, focus on what’s before you when you check in and rely on direct messages, replies, and retweets to learn who is ready to engage.
Short messages allow you to approach updates with a newspaper headline mindset, scanning assorted posts quickly, ignoring the uninteresting, and focusing on those that captivate you. This means you can easily process a message stream and then turn your attention back to other tasks.
8| I don’t know anyone using it
Twitter excels at widening your network. Those you follow and who follow you create personalized, overlapping networks organized around shared interests. Twitter offers many ways to get to know other people, and each will help you develop a wider view.
If you attend a conference, you can find others tweeting from the event by using Twitter search to seek out references to the event. You’ll instantly find people online and can organize a place to meet in person.
Clark Quinn (@quinnovator), Mark Oehlert (@moehlert), Koreen Olbrish (@koreenolbrish), and I moderate a weekly online chat using Twitter technology, focused on learning. Hundreds of people get together and learn from one another by including “#lrnchat” in their posts at one regularly scheduled time.
The @slqotd (Social Learning Question of the Day), started by Kevin Jones (@kevindjones) focuses professionals in the learning field on a single topic each day, providing them an opportunity to hear other’s insights. In a similar way, @lrn2day—created by Jane Bozarth (@janebozarth) and me—reminds everyone who follows the group to tweet what they learn each day and provides one more avenue for people to learn and meet.
9| I don’t know how to use it
Twitter tutorials are everywhere. A quick search will yield blogs, online courses, in-person workshops, and video instruction on YouTube. Create an account, connect to several people mentioned here, think about what’s holding your attention, and tell us a little about what you’ve learned.
The fundamental shift in global sharing that Twitter represents—connecting people in disparate networks around self-identified topics—will grow long after this specific service fades. By joining in now, you’ll be participating in a quiet revolution, changing the way people everywhere learn together.
Marcia Conner (@marciamarcia) is an enterprise learning and social media analyst and a 20-year veteran of the enterprise technology market. She writes the Fast Company Learn at All Levels blog and is Senior Enterprise Strategist for Pistachio Consulting. She has a book coming out in May on how social media furthers the learning process.
If you write about the intersection of social media and learning, consider submitting your work for reprint on the Touchbase blog by contacting Marcia directly.