Work and the Web are Converging

Since seeing the first website (Tim Berners-Lee’s site at CERN) in the early 1990s, I’ve been ecstatic about the web. Having spent the previous 14 years in the corporate training business, it was only natural for me to speculate about its potential for learning. With the web, information was available everywhere. I could share a single copy of a document, eliminating the hassle of distributing updates. The system could keep track of goals and progress. FAQs and mentors were a click away. What’s more, you didn’t have to be in IT to create and post your own content. A cyber campus I could access from my home office. I was in heaven.

Fifteen years on the web have made me less starry-eyed and more reflective. I’m still excited, because we’ve only scratched the surface of what the web will become in the next 15 years, but I’m able to realize that the web is doing a lot more than making communication instantaneous and information available to all. The web is changing culture.

Aided by the web, school children work with one another to complete assignments. Confined to the indoors because of random craziness and violence outside, kids maintain continual contact with friends through Instant Messenger. They get to know one another by sharing photos and thoughts on communities like MySpace. They are accustomed to learning by assembling snips of knowledge on the web into coherent papers and presentations. They work in the now, and they are starting to enter the workforce.

Culture shift

First we shape the web; then the web shapes us. E-learning has shown me that it is easy—and often okay—to skip subjects or presentations that don’t seem to be taking me anywhere. Click. Good-bye. My online behavior now shapes how I act in real life. For example, when listening to a presentation at a conference, despite the fact that I usually sit in the front row, if the presenter is not delivering the goods, I leave. I think of it as clicking on a fresh link.

The ways of the web are changing corporate behavior, too. People expect organizations we deal with to have a website, to explain how to use their products, to give us an email address or two for getting in touch, and to provide fresh information. The web is spreading values and expectations that we’ll call “Internet culture.” Here a few examples:

Customers expect a response to a query within a day or two, and sometimes immediately. However, when snail mail was the vehicle, a week was an excellent response time.

Many managers assume that workers are aware of what is going on in their organizations, which was not the case when information was always sent via memo.

The old notion of “us” and “them” no longer applies. Haughty companies will be called on it. We are all nodes on the net.

Nothing is set in stone. It’s tough to recall a book, but easy to edit a webpage.

Many presume that keeping something secret is probably a cover-up.

Unfortunately, the typical corporate manager is unfamiliar with Internet culture. They consider the web as “a marketplace for mass speech, a jungle where children are prey, a mall or concert hall, a safari for surf, a commercial space much in need of zoning,” writes Wesley Cooper in “ Information Technology and Internet Culture.

Corporations must embrace the web, however. Organizations cannot only reap the tangible benefits of connectedness, they must also internalize the memes of Internet culture. It is internet culture that can reinforce the values of collaboration, sharing, rapid response, innovation through prototyping, openness, authenticity, and agility.

The role of learning

Corporate learning can be an ideal place to initiate this Internet acculturation. In addition to providing a framework for learning the metaphors of the web, organizations can receive a large and quick payback in cost savings and improved performance.

Today’s work is knowledge work. Try to imagine working in this environment without Internet culture.

Workers are challenged to make their own decisions, on the fly. The boss is spread too thin to answer questions. No one has time for workshops and courses. Real-time learning is replacing learn-in-advance courses. Networks glue teams together and promote two-way relationships with customers and suppliers. Increasingly, people acquire the skills they use at work informally—observing others, trial-and-error, Goggling, and checking the Net so see what people have done in the past.