If meetings and water-cooler conversations increasingly seem filled with jargon you don't quite get—blog, IM, podcast, Facebook—take the hint: You're a bit of a dinosaur. It's time for a primer on Web 2.0.
You don't need to be adept at programming or coding, but mastering a few emerging technologies can put a whole new set of business tools at your fingertips, helping you stay informed, serve clients better, and get tips on job openings. Whether you're a 20-something just beginning to juice your career or a boomer looking forward to retirement, these guidelines will help sharpen your professional persona:
Learn the basics. Start with terminology, and get familiar with offerings like instant messaging, text messaging, and social networking sites. Just like phones and fax machines before them, these modern tools are becoming ubiquitous—and employers want workers who know how to use them. "I want to hear [workers] say they Googled this term or that a particular blog helped them piece together information for a project," says Jim Finkelstein, the CEO of consulting firm Futuresense. "That tells me they work in a real-time environment." In interviews, he pays close attention to the language candidates use for signs that they're Web-conversant.
The easiest way to learn these technologies is to jump in and try using them. If you don't have an iPod or MP3 player, buy one, or borrow your kid's, and download a few podcasts. Listen while exercising or working around the house. While you're at it, have the kids show you how to IM or send a text message.
When you're online, look for a few websites that follow your industry or profession. (Start by entering those terms in a search engine like Google or Yahoo!) Bookmark a few blogs, sign up for a few E-mail updates or newsletters, and see which ones prove useful. Opt out of those that don't. To protect against spam, see if your information-technology department will help you set up a dummy E-mail address you can shut down if it gets abused. Or set up a free E-mail account through Google, MSN, or Yahoo!, or through your Internet service provider at home.
Do your homework—online. If you're meeting a new client or potential boss, chances are they're looking you up online beforehand. Do the same—especially if you're job-hunting. A company's website is a good start, but a Google search might turn up helpful blogs or news stories that the company doesn't want to tout; if it's been through three CEOs in two years, or is losing money hand over fist, you might want to know. You might also learn helpful personal details about the person you're meeting with—that he or she's active in a particular charity, say, or participates in long-distance bike races—that can help you connect.
Google has a handy Alerts feature, which will send daily, weekly, or real-time E-mails telling you when there's news related to search terms that you choose. If you're applying for a job in a drug company's R&D department, for instance, you might sign up for alerts using the company's name and the term "FDA" to stay abreast of what's in the product pipeline. If one of your biggest clients has a high profile in her industry, alerts keying on her name will help you keep tabs on her.
Know your target. Companies use different methods for connecting with clients, customers, and new hires. Learn something about their pet tools. Finkelstein of Futuresense, for instance, relies heavily on the networking site LinkedIn when he's hiring, so that all of his candidates come as referrals from people he knows. Ernst & Young has a huge presence on Facebook to lure younger workers. IBM encourages employees to use instant messaging to communicate with business partners, clients, and one another. Microsoft, Honeywell, and other companies encourage recruiters and marketers to use blogs as a communication tool. Search engines, news stories, and even company websites can tip you off to these preferences.