Many an article has been written about the shortcomings of electronic communication and how it has displaced face-to-face communication. We are all aware that telephone calls and personal visits have been substituted by text messages and emails. Many loathe the trend, while others have embraced it. Most will admit that while electronic communication provides convenience and speed, it lacks the bandwidth of a real conversation where nuances of voice, intonation and gesture add value. While we admit the loss of bandwidth in electronic communication, in this article we want to highlight a benefit of electronic communication that is seldom adequately touted.
First, some context. Over the past many months, employees of LogiStyle have been working closely with employees of another company situated in a different city, for reasons that will be the topic of the next Food for Thought article. Please stay tuned! Each of the two companies have enjoyed the luxury of all its employees co-located in one facility, in one town. Both companies fostered an empowered organization where employees relied on close personal communication with each other. When you had a question or a difference of opinion, you walked over to each other’s office or had a corridor conversation. Now, people are working across time zones and distances. Communication is not as easy.
Second, let us examine a scenario. Let’s say that a manager needs to make an important decision for which five individuals have been identified as likely to have significant input to offer. It is also acknowledged that their initial positions are likely to differ. The manager is exploring which of two methods of gathering their input might work best. Should she visit with each of the five individuals one-on-one and gather their input, or should she call a meeting of all five and have a collective conversation. Clearly, if she opted for one-on-one communications, she could read and respond to the emotions of each individual and be more tactful in making them feel that they were heard. If she did so, would the input of each individual have had the benefit of others’ points of views? More philosophically, would everybody in that group know and be convinced that everybody else in that group heard the same arguments? In keeping with the provocative nature of these articles, we claim that collective conversations create value and that a collection of individual two-way conversations destroys value.
And third, another example. By-laws of corporations usually call for a majority of Directors on the board to vote for passing a resolution, and usually allow for the board, in place of a meeting, to pass resolutions by unanimous written consent, wherein each Director sends in their consent without a collective conversation. Why do they allow majority to rule in collective conversations, but require unanimity when the conversation is not collective? For the very reason described above: When the conversation is not collective the thinking of all others does not enrich the judgment of each individual.
Let’s return to the topic of electronic communication. When groups, teams, projects and companies become larger and more geographically dispersed, collective conversations become more difficult. Even arranging a conference call becomes tedious. The result: there is a lot of two-way individual conversations, often partitioned into people in each geographical site, and the value of a collective conversation is lost, while inheriting the cost of partitioned conversations. How can we avoid this? Electronic conversations! Electronic conversations provide the modern equivalent of the village square. When a difficult topic is to be discussed, start the conversation electronically, allowing for people to chime in collectively, and let the points of views be expressed and rebutted. Use it as the village square before you walk into the town hall. But, remember, don’t allow people to mingle too long in the village square. You have to strike a balance. Too much of back and forth electronic conversation will quickly degenerate into emotional debate and regurgitation. Force people to express their positions in terms of facts and interpretations – facts that can be verified and interpretations that describe what they conclude from those facts. Close the electronic conversation with a conference call during which you can have a live collective conversation.