Enterprise Twitter

Like most old farts, I was reluctant to get into Twitter. Receiving Tweets struck me as a great way to invite more trivia and continuous interrupts into my crowded life. I don’t care what Tim O’Reilly had for breakfast or Dave Snowden thinks of his hotel room. I didn’t want to know.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, invest two and a half minutes of your time here:

If that’s not enough, here’s Twitter founder Jack Dorsey explaining how people and organizations are using Twitter.

A month ago Marcia Conner asked me, “What’s it going to take to get you onto Twitter?” Marcia is twenty years younger than I but twenty years smarter, so when she speaks, Jay listens. “It’s the most productive learning technology I’ve ever used.” Skeptical or not, I had to try it.

When I draw a blueprint of an ideal enterprise learning environment, it always includes an expertise location function. You see, lots of corporate learning comes from asking other people how to do things. The trouble is, we ask the person closest to us rather than someone likely to have the right answer. Getting blank looks instead of viable answers or, worst yet, getting the wrong answer, is a prime means of frittering away time on the job.

IBM has long been my model of getting this one right. When talking with IBMers about something esoteric, more than once they’ve told me, “Oh, John X is the person you need to talk with. Let check whether he’s got a minute.” An application named Blue Pages helps IBMers ferret out who knows what; a simple presence awareness app shows whether they are reachable at the moment and where.

Cool system but you probably don’t have one, do you? Even at IBM, and I’m several years out of date so this could have changed, Blue Pages wasn’t flawless. To make it work, everyone had to feed the beast. Many people didn’t update their profiles. I can imagine other perils: being the top expert in a hot area would feel like being the only girl at the frat party — too much attention.

A corporate Twitter network could overcome some of these difficulties. For one thing, Twitter grows a self-organizing social network. Nothing to fill out. When a question is thrown out to the network, people with time and energy can volunteer at answer. No more inundating the expert.

Twitter is growing like topsy but I expect many corporations will drag their feet on “allowing it.” A corporate Twitter network puts power in the hands of the troops, and that’s threatening to an old-timey officer corps. Not that this will stop young workers from bringing it into the workplace with them.

In early 1999, I told Cisco’s eLearning group that IM was going to become a powerful learning support tool. Unbelievable. IM was kid stuff. Yet three or four years later, IM was de rigeur at Cisco and it helped knit the organization together as it mushroomed in size. I expect Twitter clones to follow a similar trajectory.

My initial skepticism arose because I had put Twitter in the wrong category. Twitter operates in real time. It’s like a stream going by. It’s only a distraction if you’re watching it. It’s not something you go back to. It’s now or never. Unlike blog posts that will live online forever, Twitter is written in disappearing ink.

Twitter’s like have a private radio station that’s run by the people you care about. (You select who you want to follow in Twitter.) You’re a DJ there, too. Cut it on and you feel closer to those who are sharing their experiences. Need advice? You throw it out in the open. Trolling for interesting stuff. Wait a moment; something will float by.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey says Twitter is for connecting people through real-time updates that spark conversation and expose trends. I sense that it may be bigger than that. Just as blogs give us all a free, personal printing press to the internet, Twitter provides an instant, real-time connection to the people you want to be connected to.