Barbara Jaworski, an expert on baby boomers in the Canadian work force, first tested the social media waters a couple of years ago after taking some basic training courses online. Now she is totally immersed.
They can find her on Facebook, or follow her trend-spotting posts on Twitter (where one recent tweet flagged a U.S. newspaper article about boomers seeking medical treatments to prevent their voices from "sounding old"). She recently opened an account on Pinterest, a content-sharing service that allows members to "pin" images, videos and other material to their virtual bulletin boards.
"I'm chomping at the bit to do live streaming now. I am just trying to figure out how to go there," said Ms. Jaworski, 58.
Ms. Jaworski may have been ahead of the executive pack when it comes to social media. The demand from executives and mid-career professionals for such training is enormous, said Alex Sévigny, director of the master of communications management program at McMaster University.
Prof. Sévigny also created the Ontario school's popular social media "boot camp" for executives. "They have what they feel is a consumer understanding of social media, and they want to have a professional understanding," he said of attendees.
"They want to be a vital part of the current conversation, they want to be on top of things … A lot of them are looking to expand their networks and become 'thought leaders.' That's becoming very important," he said.
Prof. Sévigny said that the person whose insights are respected and followed – inside his or her own organization and beyond – is in a much better position when it comes to potentially being promoted, being recruited or landing contracts after retirement.
"The conversations that would have been had over dinner or drinks in the past – the expertise shared, the reputations built – can now be done on a much larger scale through social media," he added.
Ms. Jaworski, whose company provides talent management advice to major public- and private-sector employers, said she does not know if her expanded social media network has driven more business her way.
But she said it has been invaluable for her own professional development as she shares ideas and collaborates with other leaders in her field. "I want to be linked in to people globally, I want to know what's going on. It's really driving my learning," she said.
"LinkedIn was kind of a no-brainer, so that's the first thing I did," Ms. Jaworski said. For Twitter, she scoured the social media news site Mashable.com, "because I understood they were sort of the gurus … and I found someone who would teach you a course on Twitter for free."
In addition to the how-to courses offered directly by the various social media sites, there is no shortage of basic training courses online, Ms. Jaworski noted. "Lots of organizations out there are offering these kinds of courses. You don't need to spend a lot of money, and it doesn't have to be overwhelming," she said.
When Prof. Sévigny held his first day-long executive boot camp a year ago, "a lot of participants wanted to have a hands-on tutorial on how to use Twitter and Facebook and other social media. I would actually have to walk them through creating a Twitter account, creating a Facebook account.
"But now they all come with personal Twitter accounts or Facebook accounts and it has evolved toward more strategic questions," he said.
Participants, who pay $795 for the workshop, are typically are in their late 30s and older: They did not grow up digital.
Another school offering immersion training is the University of British Columbia, which has designed a one-day workshop in its continuing studies program for people who are new to social media and want a basic introduction.
The $200 workshop offers hands-on practice in a computer lab to familiarize participants with social networking (Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+); social news and bookmarking (Digg, Reddit, Del.icio.us, StumbleUpon); RSS (subscribing to blogs and podcasts); social media sharing (Flickr, YouTube); and microblogging (Twitter, Tumblr).
UBC also offers an $80, half-day workshop on how to build a profile on LinkedIn.
These courses, open to professionals and managers at all stages of their careers, are particularly popular with mid-career managers and professionals, said Fiona McAuley, senior program leader for the continuing education department's technology, media and professional programs.
"Employers will often send a group of their employees to support individuals in their professional development; we can also put together customized training," she said.
One of UBC's key target markets for these courses is "the traditional manager with years of marketing or communications experience who understands the strategic side, but has no or little experience in social media," Ms. McAuley said.
Prof. Sévigny noted that any mid-career professional who lacks social media skills should be able to easily find a communications specialist who – "for a reasonable hourly rate" – can teach them the basics, or a media-savvy colleague who can show them the ropes for free.
Career coach Eileen Chadnick, founder of Toronto-based Big Cheese Coaching, said she advises all of her clients to be up to speed on at least some of the basics of social media.
"The extent depends on their role. Marketers do not pass go without having fluency in social media because [lack of knowledge]would be a significant gap in skill sets, given the times," she said.
"If they work in other fields, they may need less, but particular areas would still be important. For example, LinkedIn is important as a networking vehicle, so for anyone in job-search mode … it would be important to maintain and build their network," Ms. Chadnick said.
Randall Craig, author of Social Media for Business and a Toronto-based consultant on social media strategy, said it is essential that today's knowledge workers – those whose main capital is their training and knowledge, such as engineers, lawyers, financial analysts – understand and be able to use the main social media channels.
It makes them more visible to prospective clients or potential employers who would be looking in the social media pool, he said. "If you're fishing, fish where the fish are."
Don't put 'friends' on the spot
Successful social networking depends on quality, not quantity.
"It's about the relationships, not about the number of people you have on your space," said Toronto-based consultant Randall Craig, author of Social Media for Business.
LinkedIn is a tremendous tool for professional development and career advancement, he said, but participants should give careful thought to who they want to connect with – and which of those connections can be approached for recommendations.
"It's too easy to sit back and push that button that says, 'Ask for a recommendation,'" Mr. Craig said. "You need to pick up the phone and actually speak to that person.
"All of a sudden, you strengthen the relationship and you can sense whether there may be concerns about them actually giving you a recommendation. It's better to find out beforehand rather than after."
Special to The Globe and Mail