Opinion and Return on Technology and Manufacturing & Technology

ALTOM: Who knew YouTube had potential as a free university?

March 13, 2010

As much as I love and happily use technology, I come from a different age and time when, as they say, life was simpler. I have students who are aghast that I’d rather use a folded paper map to get around town than a GPS and Google Maps in a smart phone. But from my perspective, a map never irritates me, never needs recharging, and never tells me the wrong turn. I grew up with maps and I use them effortlessly.

The same is true of printed text. I print out things I see online for later reading. In counterpoint, my young students love having them on a screen. It’s true that the online text is generally cheaper and lighter, but I flip pages a lot, and it’s harder to do that when there really is no discrete “page” in a scrolling article. Heck, I still miss the ranks of cabinets the library used to have in its big atrium holding hundreds of thousands of individual cards. Computers are faster, but less satisfying.

I wrote all that to make it clear I have my blind spots and sometimes I’m shown a whole new world only by serendipity. It happened a few days ago when I was searching Google (yes, I’m a huge Google fan) for an advanced topic in statistics. Buried in the responses around page 12 was a link to a YouTube video (www.youtube.com).

Since I’ll look at almost anything once, I clicked on it and found out I’d been missing a whole lot of great knowledge available for free. There were dozens of videos on the very obscure subject I was researching, often featuring university professors in stilted but dignified lectures that were easy to follow.

I couldn’t just leave it at that, so I went on a YouTube expedition and discovered an entire continent of business wherewithal. A search for “business forecasting” yielded 427 results, most of which weren’t particularly helpful. But on the first page were videos on using Excel for sales forecasting, business-plan forecasting, and lots more. Some are slick professional videos, while others were obviously done by businessfolk who just wanted to share.

I don’t know why I’ve missed out on this free university for so long. Perhaps because I’ve associated YouTube mostly with rants and bad amateur song-and-dance renditions. Or maybe because I’ve always used print to bolster my knowledge. But I do admit to a fondness for a good, explanatory lecture, and YouTube has them in abundance.

For example, there’s a whole series called “Learn Business English with Steve” that deals with job interviews, idioms and the like. There is also a similar series on business English ESL (English as second language) for e-mails. A search for “business etiquette” turned up 962 results. Some of them are simple explanations of basic dress and deportment, but others are intended for international trade with advice about handing out business cards and greetings in different cultures. They even cover table-setting for formal dinners and how to behave at them.

Business tools get great coverage, too. There are how-to videos for Salesforce (www.salesforce.com), Lotus Notes (www.ibm.com), and Microsoft’s Outlook, Word and Excel tools, and not just basic operations. You can learn how to program Word and Excel with macros, for example. There are videos for how to use more mundane products like Twitter for business ends. OpenOffice, the free office suite from Sun (www.openoffice.org), gets its share of video help, too.

Office skills don’t go begging. Many videos illustrate how to run a fax machine, how to make copies, and how to answer the phone. Sales gets a lot of space, with videos on every aspect of the selling cycle. Payroll, insurance benefits, business law, financing and management are all well-represented. The more esoteric skills aren’t ignored; you can learn statistical process control, Six Sigma, project management and lean manufacturing. Top business gurus are all over YouTube, including Ken Blanchard, Jim Collins, Steven Covey and Tom Peters.

Like all Web knowledge channels, YouTube requires diligence and skepticism. Many videos are done by professional firms or universities that give them a shine of credibility, but many others are from amateurs, and the quality of both production and information varies a good deal. It’s like any other purveyor of advice, from your bartender to your lawyer: Your mileage may vary.

I just wish a YouTube video could end with the sound that since childhood has always meant, “Now go forth and use what I gave you,” a sound I’ll never hear again: the echoing “whack” of a drawer sliding back into the library’s old card-file cabinet.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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