IRL (in real life)
I’ve spent much of the past few years trying to persuade and train colleagues to use various forms of online communication in order to better share knowledge. At times been an uphill battle with only modest support from organizational management (go ahead – but don’t spend too much time and money on it). But interest and momentum is building, and given the current financial climate and the resulting increased focus on cost-efficiency, senior management is now paying more attention to the potential use of electronic communication tools such as our online communities or greater use of webinars (or even the phone).
But before we get too carried away with the potential of virtual communication and collaboration, including with people we have never met or worked with before – it’s important not to forget the importance of interaction “in real life” too.
Face to face interaction, where it’s possible, still trumps social media, telephone, e-mail, web-chat or any other virtual means of interaction. Humans are hard-wired for face-to-face interaction. A large part of our communication face to face is carried through non-verbal cues, and subtle intonations of the voice – facets that are lost in virtual communication. “Putting a face to a name” helps us relate to our interlocateur as a fellow human being not just an intimidating technical expert or a faceless bureaucrat.
Collaborating with others requires trust, some of which can be built or ensured through codes of conduct, but nothing quite replaces the feeling that you get about someone’s trustworthiness and motives that comes from interacting with them in person. And I’m sure you can all relate to how it feels to write an e-mail to someone you have never met – compared to writing it to someone you have already met, even if it was at an obscure workshop a couple of years ago.
Malcolm Gladwell was also at least partly right in saying that to change the world you need to take action in the real world, not only the virtual one, and its easier to work together with people you “know” (and trust) than with people you have never met.
But in practice we work in locations across the globe, and need to collaborate with a wide range of people where working face to face isn’t an option. Travel is becoming less economically and ecologically feasible, and time is of the essence. So what can we do to ensure that we build trust and have the depth of interaction we need to share knowledge effectively? Here are a few ideas:
1. When building online communities – if possible start with some kind of face-to-face meeting at least with your core expected membership. I know that we, like others have found that people are much more willing to participate in online communities if they have had a chance to get to get to know each other and map out their common interests at the beginning of the community’s lifecycle. Ideally this will be a dedicated meeting to launch a community – but if that’s not possible – try to at least link the community launch with another existing meeting where many of the key players will be present.
2. Cut back travel if you must – but don’t cut out travel altogether. Meeting people in person is important and should be recognized more explicitly as part of doing business effectively – particularly when people start in a new position – meeting face to face with their main counterparts is an important first step in building ongoing work relations. And periodic face to face workshops of professional peers are also important. Some of the most effective knowledge sharing techniques such as world cafés, and knowledge fairs can only really work in face to face mode. Cutting back too much on these can actually be counterproductive in terms of building cohesion and promoting sharing and reuse of key organizational knowledge.
3. Remember the social – I usually find that the most valuable aspects of participation in a meeting come from outside of the formal agenda itself, over coffee breaks, during the evening meal or in the bar. In an attempt to maximise the value from a costly meeting, there is a tendency to overcram the official agenda to make sure every possible issue is covered. Yet this often leads to poor quality interactions, and a lack of follow up afterwards. It’s important to schedule adequate time just for people to catch up, to get to know each other and to have bilateral meetings. Including time for people to socialize, including evening social events, as well as using meeting methodologies that encourage people to talk to each other, including to people they don’t already know is very important to get the best out of a meeting and to build contacts that will be of use for knowledge sharing and collaboration after the meeting is finished.
4. Humanize virtual communication. Although virtual communication is not like real life, there are things you can do to make your use of these technologies more personal, and more likely to promote trust and willingness to work together. Examples of this are development of systems for online personal profiles/spaces that are managed by the individuals themselves, rather than coming from the HR system (giving people the chance to choose how they present themselves to colleagues), add pictures – online systems that include photographs rather than just an anonymous avatar also help people remember they are interacting with another human being. Don’t be afraid to include personal details, interests and observations in online systems – yes, these might not be directly connected to your work – but they do help create bonds between individuals which make working together easier. Where possible use video/webcam for interaction not just the phone, or use the phone rather than just chat – hearing a real voice and seeing a real image convey a more personal communication than simply using text.
5. Take advantage of serendipitous opportunities for meetings. This is the beauty of the tweetup or impromptu meeting – finally encountering people you have only known online in real life. It’s always good to “pop in” (preferably announced) to see people you have worked with virtually to say hello in person – even if you don’t have specific business with them. And organizing a social get together with virtual collaborators to get to know them outside a formal setting can be both fun, but it also transforms the online relationship afterwards and can make it much more productive – even if you barely talked about work when you met (and you know that if you went to the pub you ended up talking about work anyway – but this time without guard up).
6. Walk down the corridor, go for coffee. If you are in the same location it still often seems easier to write an e-mail or make a phone call rather than go down the hallway or go to the cafeteria to chat in person. I know I’m guilty of this, but it’s really worth the effort to take the time to meet in person, especially when you need to sort our differences of opinion and misunderstanding that are easily generated via e-mail exchanges. Make an effort not to hide behind technology with the mistaken impression that it will save you time, and the need to deal with people.
Technology plays an important role in helping connect people from across locations, or even within them and allows for all kinds of rich interactions that weren’t previously possible – but they are not a substitute for face to face interaction – rather they are a complement to it. For more effective knowledge sharing and collaboration it’s important to try to build in opportunities for face-to-face interaction wherever possible. And although sustained face-to face interaction is often impractical – having face to face interactions at some stage to promote relationship building can work wonders to improve the virtual interactions that happen afterwards and make them more frequent and more substantive and the connections more long lasting. And here is where I think Gladwell was wrong – yes, action needs to be taken in the real world and based on real world connections – but important connections can start virtually and be cemented by meeting face to face, or can start face to face and be sustained by online interaction. It’s not that online is better than in person, or that they are competing approaches, but that done well they are complementary and mutually reinforcing – and so we need to pay attention to both.