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How do you “work out loud” across continents? There’s an app for that.

WhatsApp Home Screen

Imagine you were given the opportunity to restore sight to someone who was blind. And the better you did your job, the greater number of people who could see.

I work for an eye bank, and my colleagues and I wake up to this opportunity every day.

For those of us who work in the same office, the opportunity to share promising practices presents itself through a variety of every day interactions – sitting next to one another, in the lunchroom, at the water cooler, in weekly staff meetings or daily huddles. It’s less easy, however, to share new thoughts or ideas or ways to move past common problems for those of us working with colleagues around the world. To some degree, when colleagues are out of sight, they’re also out of mind.

Several years ago I set up a wiki in order to try to create a virtual water cooler – leveraging technology to create an online space for people to come together. I tried seeding some conversations. If someone sent me an email with a question, my response was always the same: “Great question… I bet other people could also benefit from an answer to that question. Post your question on the wiki and I’ll answer it.”

I figured we could kill a whole lot of birds with this stone. It was a way to “work out loud” so that bunches of people could benefit from one person’s experiences.

You can lead a horse to the digital water cooler…

More often than not, the question was never posted to the wiki. I could just feel people on the other side of the world shrugging their shoulders and saying: “Screw it, that’s too much work. All I wanted was a simple answer to a simple question.”

I realized I was trying to force an online community to exist that was simply outside of people’s every day routine, adding a technology (the wiki) that added an extra step into their workflow. It wasn’t convenient or time saving. It was a hassle.

These colleagues did, however, use text messaging quite often. And they used WhatsApp.

One day, a colleague in India made a presentation about how her team used WhatsApp to communicate effectively. Though her team was dispersed across Delhi and would rarely see one another face-to-face, they felt connected and could quickly have questions answered at any time using WhatsApp. It was already a technology they used personally, on a day-to-day basis to send text messages without incurring text messaging charges.

Recently, we began experimenting with WhatsApp as a tool to connect staff across India with colleagues in the United States, and it holds a lot of promise as a sort of virtual water cooler – a place where people can share successes or crowd source answers to vexing questions. Here was one recent exchange among several colleagues scattered across India:

WhatsApp Interaction edited

One colleague was simply expressing her frustration at not being able to speak with specific family members. A second person jumped in to empathize and let her know she wasn’t alone, while a third person shared a practice he’d found to be successful in his region.

It was a pretty natural, organic conversation. Somewhat unremarkable. Except that it took place among colleagues separated by hundreds of miles, who only see one another in person twice a year. Without an opportunity to come together via WhatsApp, this conversation never would have taken place.

By exposing more people to a promising practice via WhatsApp this week, more blind people may be able to see next month.

5 Key Take-aways:

1. No single person in our organization holds a monopoly on bright ideas, so connecting people with opportunities for informal learning across space and time is essential.

2. Technology holds the potential to magnify the opportunities to interact and engage, but we can’t force people to interact in ways that are unnatural (the wiki experience).

3. We need to seek out and take advantage of ways people are already interacting and engaging.

4. Not only does a social learning platform allow peers to learn from each other, it also allows the L&D team to identify trends, promising practices and common stumbling blocks in real time.

5. The L&D team needs to be a member of the community, not some sort of opportunistic lurker who only jumps into a conversation in order to push out the latest L&D offerings.

Is informal or social learning a part of your strategy across teams and locations? What lessons have you learned?

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