I was at an industry awards event recently when Kimberly-Clark was recognized for its company-wide “One K-C Jam” experience. A collaborative effort designed to span organizational levels and silos, the Jam incorporated elements like chat rooms and discussion forums with facilitators, and face-to-face focus groups onsite in company mills.

Described as a “five-day conversation,” the event drew in nearly 12,000 employees in 66 countries. Goals were to find culture gaps, assess the real versus perceived state of initiatives, and uncover underlying barriers to change (I wrote about first- and second-order barriers a few months back.)

How did it go? What did they talk about?

What I found most interesting: the company reported that of 22,000 comments, 6,000 were solution oriented. That’s just over one-fourth. I don’t know what the other 16,000 posts were about, but I’m pretty sure there was some complaining and some blaming and some talking about off-topic work issues and probably some conversation about cats and lunch. Just like in “real life.”

So what? The company recognized that this is a pretty good result. I find many organizations have terribly unrealistic expectations of communication tools, especially social media: “There’s nothing but noise. People won’t stay on topic. People will talk about things that aren’t work related. People will talk about personal stuff.” Well … yeah. Just like at the office. And in meetings. And on the phone. And via email. And in class. If you want people to really connect via social tools you’ll allow room for human conversation. Just like in “real life.

Going beyond the superficial to find the value

Per Etienne Wenger’s great new framework for assessing the value of online interactions, it’s important to look beyond the surface of interactions. Are people making connections they can leverage later? Are people learning about one another’s interests and skills? Are there new connections between talent pools and expertise? That’s called an investment. Do results emerge later, in the form of tools reused or rework saved? Are you paying attention for unexpected benefits? While it wasn’t a goal of the “One KC Jam,” an unexpected outcome was the birth of several new product ideas.

So check your expectations. Kimberly-Clark’s Tina Busch, global learning and development director, said, “We wanted our people to engage with one another without boundaries”—and that’s what they got. The fact that so many people had so much to say was taken as a sign that “people wanted to be heard.” Every member in an organization won’t participate equally. Some topics will generate a lot more excitement than others. There will be off-topic chitchat. There will be noise. And some of that noise will end up having value, or building a bridge that will prove useful later. Just like in real life.

Finally: Those 6,000 solution-oriented comments? They were sifted into themes to be shared with everyone else. The sifting? That’s what a curator does. That’s what we need to do. That’s a role L&D is uniquely positioned to fill.

But wait! There’s more!

Update: In August 2012 I wrote about my friend Gloria, who learned out loud on Facebook as she developed skill in creating gorgeous bakery-style decorated cookies. Her daughter Marlo, following along, ended up opening her own successful cookie business. Now she’s taught herself about 3-D printing, acquired a MakerBot, and has just launched Dream Cutters, her own cookie cutter manufacturing business. I know—because she talked about it on Facebook. Please, if you aren’t doing so already, Show Your Work whenever you can.

Headed to Learning Solutions? Join me for a breakout session on making video more social, and stage presentations on using Pinterest and other tools to support workplace learning and on using social tools to fill in the spaces between formal learning events.