Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Enterprise 2.0 and face-to-face interaction

These days, knowledge management practitioners work on computer technologies day-in and day-out. I think it is fair to say that without the power of technologies, starting with email and moving on up to collaborative technologies like blogs, wikis, and Sharepoint lists, many of us might not have jobs.

These technologies are so powerful in part because they enable communication in multiple ways. At the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference, a presenter opined that communication technologies could be broken down by the number of communicants on each side of the transmission:

  • One person to one person: telephone, IM, email.
  • One person to many people: intranets, (email), blogs.
  • Many people to one person/company: RSS, message boards, suggestion boxes.
  • Many people to many people (web 2.0): video teleconference, face book, wikis, del.icio.us, blogs with actual comments.

(I wish I could identify who said this, but I wasn’t doing live blogging then.)

I think these technologies are amazing and would reject any suggestion that I am a Luddite, ready to toss my laptop. Yet much suggests that the most effective communications occurs face-to-face (a/k/a F2F, F/F) and not through any of these methods.

For instance, LucasFilm has moved its special effects, animation, and computer gaming groups under one roof at the Presidio in San Francisco—even these technologically savvy people say in Business Week that with their projects requiring high-level collaboration, “there's no substitute for face-to-face interaction for their team-oriented projects.” (“The Empire Strikes at Silos”, August 20, 2007).

Looking back over my fairly brief time in the field, I have found that face-to-face training and approach has been a critical part of most KM successes I have had. Once I build trust with attorneys through face-to-face interactions, I can be much more effective in transmitting skills and information to them.

Why is face-to-face so much more effective? There are lessons from the science and KM literatures, art, and the law.

One of the most recent scientific or business literature articles to address the uniqueness of face-to-face was an article in the August 2007 issue of “Scientific American Mind” (free preview, but registration required) which suggested that a different set of neurons is activated when we think we are face to face and responding to another person. Carol Kinsey Goman in the May/June 2007 KM Review (article not available on-line) also opined that a “in face-to-face meetings, our brains process a continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for building trust and professional intimacy—both of which are critical to high-level collaboration, negotiation, and communication.” (I especially like her phrase “professional intimacy”, which seems contradictory at first but comes to make sense as you think about it).
More broadly, there is a perception, backed by some studies, that people are best at learning through not just one but a broad range of methods. In addition to the obvious preferences for visual or audio, some people have to do it to learn it (“experiential learners”) while others prefer abstract or theoretical approaches. Working face-to-face may provide each of the different kinds of learners with the type of learning experience that they need; in fact, a good teacher may well consciously or unconsciously be able to adapt the approach to the audience, based on live feedback.

My experience as a long-time classical music performer provides another answer. While a high-level audiophile might disagree, there is no question in my mind that the immediacy and raw power of the sound a live performer makes, working his magic (or not) directly in front of you, cannot be matched by a recording, no matter the depth of the sound. That is true as well for any decent speaker as well.

Another lesson from my musical background is that drama and excitement arise merely from seeing the person sweat (and possibly fail) in the performance—whether a literal high wire act, or violinistic pyrotechnics, or anything that is live and difficult. The listener identifies with the performer and thrills as the performer vanquishes the difficult run in the concerto (or, more pessimistically, feels schadenfreude or sympathy should the fingers slip). There is usually no such gripping drama in any electronic medium—while we know that theoretically there is a possibility of failure through such communications, experience has taught us that by their nature these are carefully vetted and approved well before they are displayed to the world. An exception that proves the rule are the highly promoted product demos, such as Steve Jobs’ spectacular iPhone demo or Bill Gates’ Windows 98 implosion.

There is another lesson from art and theatre. By coming to the event, the audience has already demonstrated a communal commitment to the message or the event. They are no longer passive recipients of a message. In a very real sense, even if (like all internal company events) it is “free”, they have paid for the message, through investing their time and energy in attendance, and they are wanting something back.

My background in law is in litigation. In most cases, people or their representatives actually get a chance to stand up in court in front of a decision maker (such as a judge or arbitrator) who, by law and tradition, is neutral in the dispute. Making the plea in person, or perhaps even better yet, paying someone more eloquent than you to stand up in court, provides this opportunity. We also feel that we can better assess credibility in person, through our assessment of the veracity and likeability of the witness. The face-to-face “plea” satisfies the litigant that at least their voice has been heard. A comparatively anonymous written submission might not.

So what can the practitioner draw from the significance of face-to-face?

One point, ironically, is to keep an eye out for technologies that replicate some of the key aspects of face-to-face, like Cisco’s Telepresence (disclaimer: Cisco is a client of Goodwin Procter.) While I have not seen a demo, Telepresence comes closer to in-person communications by allowing much of the same type of interactions, such as non-verbal cues. The video is high-definition, and replicates the direction of a speaker’s voice; it is also at face level, not up on a TV-like screen. Another (more limited) F2F technology is the Lotus Webconferencing System that via a web connection shows a picture of all participants on an audio conference and indicates via a visual cue who is speaking and who is moderating. And trainings, even stored presentations, should include as many aspects of in-person communication as possible, whether that is video or audio.

A second point is to keep traveling. Integration across offices is a major challenge for all sorts of firms, and all of this makes plain that real integration requires cross-office travel by all sorts of people, in order to build the necessary “professional intimacy” at different operational levels. KM professionals should try to meet as many people as possible in their travels, not just those that they have appointments with, to broaden their personal network and effectiveness.

A third point, a professional development remark, is that KM practitioners should do everything they can to become more effective speakers. A small amount of study in effective speaking can provide a remarkable degree of improvement. The best communication teachers are those who make their living through the voice; actors, directors, and singers. I will always remember the effective coaching I received during a certain transitional period from Michael Allosso, a stage director in the Boston area. I know it helped me tremendously in several job interviews (admittedly a very specialized type of F2F), and I've also sent friends to him, also with good results.

Finally, as noted in the LucasFilm article and in a June 2007 post from my colleague Doug Cornelius, firms can enhance a culture of knowledge-sharing and collaboration by creating a flexible set of spaces within the workplace where people can meet face-to-face. While my current firm has wonderfully large and naturally-lit conference rooms, for more formal business interactions, I have noticed a deficiency (compared to previous firms I have worked) in informal spaces equivalent to coffee shops, eating places with banquettes, or markets. Some ideas for spaces like this would be: extend existing coffee / kitchen space by addition of tables & chairs, have more employee “lounge”-type areas, add a firm cafeteria as these Boston firms did. Even a firm apparel shop (selling branded clothing, mugs, and so forth) could be another such space.


Doug Cornelius said...

One of the great things about Enterprise 2.0 tools is their ability to set up information and topics for when face-to-face interaction occurs. In disparate organizations there are fewer times you run into colleagues (even with workspaces that encourage this to happen). These interactions are much better when you have some idea what the person has been doing or writing about lately.

The example to think about is how we ran into people at ILTA '07 and had many things we had to talk about with people who had put information out there in blogs and websites that we have read and people who had read our blogs.

Enterprise 2.0 tools to help engage and nurture a community of practice.

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