Every day, 620 million people look to Google for information, according to statistics from Web monitoring firm Pingdom. The site is an equal-opportunity source, whether users are searching for the latest news on Justin Bieber or learning how to set up an Excel pivot table. It makes no judgments and asks no questions. The site aims simply to make information open and accessible to all at the point of need.
That open environment is integral to the company’s external communication and internal learning. Jay Cross, founder of the Internet Time Group and Chief Learning Officer columnist, filed a report from ASTD’s TechKnowledge conference in San Jose last month on a keynote presentation by Karen Wickre, senior manager of corporate communications for Google; and Ann Farmer, who is on the company’s engineering education team, engEDU.
Cross reported that Wickre, who runs the corporate blog for Google, said Googlers — as employees are known internally — run 150 customer-facing blogs that receive 10 million unique visits monthly. In addition to the blogs, there are 100 Twitter accounts and 20 Facebook pages. For many companies, that sort of open communication would create a morass of conflicting messages and material ripe for potential lawsuits. And as a result, the public-relations team and legal department put customer communication under lockdown.
While Wickre’s team owns the communications process, they’ve avoided the communications straitjacket by providing a loose structure and process for employees to use when communicating with customers. That process includes guidelines on which tools to use; a style guide for communications; a list of how-tos for promotion, tagging and analytics; and a wiki for employees to share resources and learning. Mistakes happen, but when they do, Googlers quickly fix them.
That open approach carries through to how the company enables learning among the company’s engineers. Farmer and the rest of the engEDU team face two key challenges in carrying out their mission to make it easier for Google engineers to share information with one another. First, Google’s global workforce makes it difficult to provide live classes and synchronous development opportunities. Second, each engineering team’s needs differ based on where they are and what they do.
To tackle the first challenge, engEDU first organized existing online content and made it accessible to engineers by role and content topic through an online user interface. But the second challenge was a little more tricky: To provide relevant content, experts need to talk to other experts who can help them solve a particular challenge they are facing. The answer was to get engineers to talk to one another and share information and resources.
But having engineers around the world continually adding content and materials to an online database can quickly result in an unwieldy product. Learning managers will find it difficult to manage the flood of content and engineers will find it difficult to quickly search and locate the particular piece of information they’re seeking.
Using metadata — data about the content of a particular item or piece of information — offers one answer. For a text document, metadata could include who the author is, when it was written and possibly even a short summary. In web parlance, this process is called tagging. Web pages typically include a number of tags or keywords that describe the content of that page. That metadata can be used to categorize and provide context to information and make it easily searchable, and therefore accessible.
Categorizing and tagging information comes somewhat naturally to a company like Google, whose business is based on the world’s information. Farmer offered up advice for learning professionals at companies not so versed in information architecture. First, ask who needs to find what information. Then, define the terms those users would find most meaningful. Answering those two questions will create the basis of a real-time learning system.
But getting the tools lined up is the easy part. Getting people to apply those tools to their jobs is quite another challenge, but that’s one best left for another day.
Mike Prokopeak is editorial director of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.