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Are Face-to-Face Meetings Obsolete? April 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, International management, Management & leadership.
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I’ll get right to it: no, they’re not. Yes, we have the technology to communicate instantly with people all over the world, whether by voice or text or even video. We can share files and review the same presentation in real-time. If a project has been parsed into reasonable chunks, we can multiply our productivity by “following the sun.”

And yet, the technology does not guarantee effective communication. Faster worldwide access to co-workers or customers or suppliers will not necessarily overcome distrust, misalignment, ambiguity, and confusion. Communication requires not just a channel, but also a sender and a receiver where the signal is processed into usable information. It’s that signal processing step that we overlook when we focus only on speed and accessibility.

I believe it’s important to establish a professional relationship with distant partners before relying on electronic communication. This is going to sound bad, but it’s easier for me to ignore someone’s e-mail or voice mail if I’ve never met them face-to-face and spent time with them, ideally over a meal. This is especially important if I live in a different country than the other person. Differences in language and culture can be very hard to overcome without a foundation of trust.

I understand that business travel costs money, and this is yet another situation where we try to balance real costs in the present against hoped-for benefits in the future. Travel budgets are always an easy target during times of expense reductions. I don’t have the numbers to build a financial justification, but I still believe it’s worth it, at least at the start of a new relationship with remote co-workers or a supplier. Periodic travel after that helps to maintain the relationship and head off any sources of confusion or deviation.

Expanded wireless access and faster speeds will enable better video conferencing, but I doubt it will ever provide a substitute for the informal and spontaneous communication that happens when people are in the same place at the same time. I love the new technology, but in the end it’s people who do the work.

 

 

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