Let's say your boss has given you the job of setting up your office's Facebook page and Twitter account, but you don't know a Facebook fan from a Facebook friend, or a Tweet from Tweety Bird.
You could go to a formal training workshop in a classroom that teaches the basics of social networking. Or you could play around with Facebook and Twitter yourself and contact other federal workers who have set up their own pages and accounts and ask them what they learned along the way.
Many federal agencies have development offices that have created significant formal training programs for workers. Formal training makes sense for many front-line jobs like Border Patrol agents and Veterans Affairs Department claims processors. But for government workers who have to learn new skills on the job, formal training won't cut it. The knowledge, skills and abilities they need to develop can be found only through informal networks and nontraditional learning efforts. Federal training professionals have to rethink the way they help employees learn new skills. Think "self-help," not "enroll here."
Indeed, social networking sites have helped foster permanent professional development networks for government workers. For example, some 300 federal professionals interested in enterprise risk management have joined the site FederalERM.com to keep up with the latest developments in that field. GovLoop's 30,000-plus members have created more than 700 groups to help each other do a better job on issues ranging from cybersecurity to human resources to performance measurement. GovLeaders.org, a site run by career senior Foreign Service officer Don Jacobson, connects federal managers and executives with the latest leadership development thinking.
Learning opportunities for federal professionals abound on the Web. Want a great case study in using root cause analysis to figure out why something happened? Then read about Goddard Space Flight Center deputy director Rick Obenschain's investigation into a recent NASA mishap at askmagazine.nasa.gov. Or find a community of practice - an informal learning group - at the Public Sector Consortium at public-sector.org, where you can explore ways to apply systems thinking to the problems at your agency.
Formal training programs are great vehicles for teaching employees the skills and procedures that are set in stone. Law enforcement personnel need to complete a full regimen of formal training at federal academies so they know the processes, rules and skills necessary to keep the nation safe. Federal wild land firefighters must be taught safety protocols and firefighting techniques.
But many federal workers have to be in a constant state of self-learning to acquire skills to meet the flexible and adaptable needs of their jobs. A management analyst looking to improve the agency's arcane process of grant-making must use informal techniques to find people in other agencies - or outside government - who already have found ways to streamline processes. A facilities director who has to make the office more environmentally friendly would do just as well, if not better, connecting with other federal facilities managers who have greened their workplaces as he or she would taking a class.
One advantage of informal learning would be hard to duplicate in a classroom. Instead of only one teacher, self-learners who reach out across the Internet can have a dozen or more.
Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years.