We all know of the employee who is a wanderer in the office premises. All that he ever does is walk around and march into other peoples' desks and cubicles, and ask - 'Hey, what's going on!' He greets people with a big smile and a deep baritone that you know is going to reverberate through the office as he opens his mouth to speak (let's call him The Wannabe Tycoon). Or he might be a quiet guy who goes about his task very subtly, somewhat akin to the horse whisperer who tames the wild beast with his mellow voice, and then builds a rapport with the stallion for life (let's call him The Smiling Buddha). Whatever his demeanor, his behaviour is sure to harbor extreme reactions in people - he is either liked a lot by his fans or downright detested by his audience. Yet others may be slightly amused by his candor, and shrug their shoulders in disbelief every time he leaves their cubicle. They wonder when he gets actual work done, and if he gets any work done at all.
Let's linger for a while longer here and understand the modus-operandi of this curious employee. You might be working for hours on an assignment holed up at your desk, it is probably late in the evening, and you are hoping for some divine intervention that will help you get it done and go home. A head suddenly pops up from the desk across your cubicle and your friendly neighborhood Buddha is beaming at you. You smile back. He comes over and very politely asks if you would like to get some tea. You forget all about the assignment for a brief second. You are relieved to have The Smiling Buddha for company and for the chai break - you happily consent to the offer.
Rewind the scenario back a bit and go back to when you were working hard on that assignment. You are startled and almost fall off your chair when you hear a booming voice from right behind you that shouts "Whats going onnn!" You turn around to see The Wannabe Tycoon beaming his perfect set of 32 teeth at you. He comes and sits by your side to engage you in a long drawn discussion about methane gas on Mars, challenges at the workplace, his cool new gadget, potential client wins on the horizon, and his last vacation to the Bahamas. You are slightly annoyed at the interruption, but humour him nonetheless, hoping to get back to your work as soon as you can.
Regardless of the personality type of the employee, we see both The Smiling Buddha and The Wannabe Tycoon leverage the informal learning environment that exists at the workplace. During the next team meeting, you can rest assured that both these gentlemen would have interesting insights to offer - about the market, assignments, competition, etc. They consciously try and glean important information through active conversation with colleagues, bosses, clients, and competition, while at the same time respecting personal boundaries and confidential information.
Leaders must recognize the importance of knowledge exchanged via a social setting, and consciously create conducive learning environments for such interactions between employees. What is the point of having relevant knowledge rot in the company's social media archive for years? Or the rich, albeit underutilized perspectives that exist in silos within the four walls of the organization? Very few managers can identify the powerful synergies that can be realized by getting their employees to engage in active discussion. Imagine getting members from your legal, finance, marketing and sales teams into the cafetaria to have a lively SWOT talk over coffee or lunch. They would be uncomfortable sharing anything at all the first time, but when this turns into a regular affair, you will begin to see perspectives come to the fore that nobody thought existed previously. The Smiling Buddha and The Wannabe Tycoon use the power of informal learning to establish lasting relationships, learn more about their business and their industry, and advance their careers. Maybe it is time to use some of those techniques to enable your organization catapult itself to the next level of learning and performance.