In the growth trajectory of most companies, you eventually get to the size where capturing and spreading your employees’ knowledge around actually becomes a business advantage. And while most organizations continue to struggle with the perpetual tug of war between “what we’re paying you to do” and “what we’d like you to do,” some knowledge sharing activities are seen as generally beneficial.
One such idea is the “lunch & learn ,” as it’s called at my employer. Other organizations call it a “brown bag seminar ,” which is a more intriguing name because it suggests that what’s hidden in those bags might contain a surprise or mystery. Really, though, most often you get pizza or those office-y sandwiches that always seem to turn up when lunch is ordered by someone who doesn’t actually get to eat it. (I’m sometimes slightly envious when I consult to companies who order genuinely delicious, varied and nutritionally balanced meals for business meetings — you know who you are. It just shows that someone, somewhere actually cares about the details of everything.)
Basically, the organization buys you lunch, and someone gives a talk in a big meeting room. In the case of the firm where I work, talks broadly fall into one of two categories: methodology (“How I did something cool, and what you can learn from that”) or technology/vendor presentations (“Here’s what this product/service does, and here’s why we think that’s useful to you”). At the end of the talk, you get to ask questions or have a round-table discussion. An hour later, you’ve learned something new, and — fed and smarter — you’re back at your desk. And I’m absolutely not complaining: I enjoy many of those events, because now that our number of employees is in the hundreds, I don’t personally know or talk to everyone anymore, so there’s no possible way to organically find out about all the cool things my coworkers are doing.
I do sometimes find myself longing for a Big Company environment again. I catch glimpses into Google sometimes that suggest they have open lunchtime events for staff members quite frequently, delivered by world-renowned speakers, about a broad range of topics; from self-improvement to nutrition to economics to politics to technology. I imagine the idea is that an inspired workforce that’s been exposed to the latest ideas simply performs better and is more motivated. I experienced some of this first hand when I worked for Microsoft many years ago. Especially in Seattle, the campus often really felt like one. (I don’t know what it’s like these days.)
Of course, I’ve known about TED  for years. Since they started to publish videos of almost all their talks on their website — licensed under a Creative Commons  license, so you’re not just allowed to watch them but may also distribute and show them to groups — the TED website has become the world’s biggest and best repository of world class knowledge.
A few months ago, I realized TED is basically a Big Company “lunch & learn” in a box for those of us who don’t work for big companies. I work from home frequently (the added peace and quiet helps me focus for longer stretches of time, and given the ever-increasing price of fuel it just makes sense to telecommute where possible), so on home office days, I make a point of watching a TED talk in lieu of a company lunch & learn.
I’ve learned fantastic new things from the arts and sciences, heard great wisdom and experienced beautiful art. Most days, I just look at TED.com’s home page and pick a random talk that looks interesting. More often than not, I’ve not been disappointed.
Plus, I get to eat whatever I want for lunch.