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This One Just Cracks Me Up

Why Face-to-Face Still Rules

Yesterday's plea for rethinking face-to-face meetings apparently struck a nerve, as a lively discussion broke out in comments and Jane of Wandering Eyre weighed in on her blog.

As you'll recall, I was complaining that a group I'm working with wouldn't use online tools to gather information, preferring to meet face-to-face and I suggested a few reasons why I thought that might be true.

I was initially going to keep the converations going through comments, but too many people had interesting things to say, so I'm bringing them into another post.

Here's what I've learned so far.

First, I'm not alone in wishing that we could figure out how to get people to move online, at least in certain circumstances. Writes Shannon of Random Mutterings:

This has been a very challenging question for our organization as well. As a nonprofit with globally dispersed staff, face-to-face meetings are expensive, often unfunded by donors, difficult to coordinate. But yet there seems to be no progress without them -- it is almost as if people don't become "real" until you meet them in person. I think this resistance is more pronounced in cultures where technology is not so prevalent. I don't have any suggestions or solutions, only frustrations. But I am open to all suggestions for how we can make virtual teaming work when the reality is that there is no substitute for face to face, but costs and other concerns often prevent it.

This made me feel somewhat better, because after I wrote the post I started to think I was just being unnecessarily crabby. But obviously other people struggle with the same issue. And I think that Shannon's point that people aren't "real" without face-to-face contact is an interesting one. I certainly know that it's one reason why I like bloggers to include their photos on their site so I can at least picture a person doing the "talking."

That said, a number of people had some additional suggestions for why so many resist moving away from f2f meetings. First up was Harold Jarche, who suggested that people are simply uncomfortable with online tools and that if we could just expose them and let them poke around, it might be an easier sell. I tend to agree with this, although in my particular case, the group I'm working with is apparently familiar with things like blogs and wikis, but have no interest in using them because it "takes too much time." Which I find interesting, given that they're willing to give a day and night to a trip that will accomplish less.

Then Jane at Wandering Eye suggested that people might be uncomfortable with the transparency and accountability that comes with online meetings, something that definitely hadn't occurred to me:

When you hold a meeting over chat, develop an idea on a wiki, discuss solutions to problems on a discussion board, or collectively edit a document, you leave little traces of the process everywhere. There are transcripts, different versions of documents, and there is an actual record of who made what comment and contributed what material.

In a f2f meeting, we rely on a person to take notes. We all know that Meeting Minutes are nothing more then a list of decisions and action items. Meeting minutes do not reflect the decision process, the tension a topic may have induced, or the crazy idea that got thrown on the table and very quickly was swept under the rug. Meeting minutes are the sanitized version of what really happened. Sometimes, they are so sanitized as to be completely useless to those who were not in attendance.

Conducting committee work on the web can be dirty, it can be chaotic, and, in most instances, it is open for all the world to see. Moving committee work to the web is the picture of radical transparency and that scares people. Big organizations hate admitting failure and process can look like failure.

Wow! Very true, I think, although I also wonder if people have been that strategic in their thinking. Or is this something that they intuitively understand and dread? Regardless, this is a really powerful point that probably does have an impact.

Another reason to keep meeting face-to-face was suggested by Bronwyn Maudlin--the "trust factor":

I think there's something more going on here that goes beyond relationship building and motivation, or lack of comfort/knowledge of web 2.0 tools, and that's about trust. It's about looking people in the eye, seeing their body language and being able to react appropriately to all those nonverbal cues. It's the ability to react instantly when a question or concern is raised, rather than waiting for cumbersome written messages to make their way back and forth across the ether. As humans, we're built with a lot of communication tools that we often aren't aware we're using.

Michelle Murrain echoed these thoughts and added that to her, face-to-face is the "glue" that holds virtual groups together. She also made a plea for balance, arguing that while she didn't want to spend all of her time traveling, she also didn't want to spend all of her time in front of a 14" screen either.

I think that it's important to find the balance, and understand that people who might seem simply wedded to old ideas might actually have a point. It's not really about efficiency of information transfer, it's about information transfer of the kind that can only happen when people are physically in the same room together.

One final suggestion for why face-to-face persists came from Chris, who suggested that the real issue here is that 70% of us are extroverted, which means we tend to get more out of talking and face-to-face interaction and less out of reading a website or adding to a wiki:

There have been many studies in this area over the years. Basically, only about 30% of us are satisfied with quickly interacting for the exchange of data.

That leaves a whopping 70% who want to meet in person, and who will NEVER prefer to do otherwise. In short, these people draw their enthusiasm and personal energy from direct contact with other people. Video does not satisfy that need. Podcasting does not satisfy that need. It involves more than sight and sound.

Now if Web 2.0 tools could pump human pheromones across a "meeting enhancement" wiki, then you might have a hope of prying those people out of the face to face meeting mode. Apparently, the scent of others who reach agreement is part of the face to face crowd's need. . . .
Anyone up for developing a pheromone releasing keyboard?

This is something I'd considered after I wrote the post. I'm definitely an introvert, so to me, social media is a dream come true--social interaction and information sharing on MY terms! But I also do a lot of work with an extrovert who HATES all things Internet. At a minimum she needs to talk to (at?) me over the phone in order to get her thoughts in order. In her perfect world, though, I would be on call 24/7 to capture everything she says because she's never sure when she's going to come up with something good. Her response to just about every situation is "we need to have a meeting." I say this lovingly (we have a great relationship), but she's one of the people I have in mind to avoid by doing more things online. To me it would be so much EASIER to get to what I need.

So where does this take us? Tim Davies has one suggestion:

There is something interesting about looking for the 'bridging' technologies. The ways of meeting, or holding a conference call, that bring in benefits of social media and online technologies alongside an existing meeting/discussion practise - so that face-to-face meetings without their online compontent become unthinkable... and the online compotent without the face-to-face becomes a bit more thinkable...

I've been exploring this a bit with conference calls, using parallel online workspaces for note-taking (http://www.thinkature.com was particularly interesting to use), and through making sure from meetings information is captured and fed back to people through an online tool - rather than as an e-mail attachment / paper minutes. By offering the online element and tools 'in-addition', no-one is forced at first to engage any of the extra features (or as they may see - complexity) - but as participants come to experience the added value - the hope is that they choose to use these tools and that they transition away from inefficient ways of meeting...

Very true and this feeds back into what Harold suggested, which is finding ways to get people comfortable with the technology.

I also think that at a minimum, we need to do a better job with structuring meetings and outcomes and being sure to share that information on the web using tools like tagging and RSS so that people see how information can be better categorized, accessed and used when we put it online. One of the beauties of online meeting, I think, is the creation of re-usable bits of knowledge that can always be accessed and re-packaged long after a meeting is over.

But at the same time I recognize that at least for the foreseeable future, people will still want face-to-face. It may be something that we've evolved to need, as Chris and Bronwyn suggest. Or it may just be that it makes us comfortable. Regardless, I'm afraid we'll always have meetings. The best I can do is to figure out how to eliminate some and then make those that remain more productive.

Comments

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>Conducting committee work on the web can be dirty, it can be chaotic, and, in most instances, it is open for all the world to see.
Hmmm. What about password protected chats and wikis? Does it make any difference?

Here's another minor factor I've wondered about ... Do people (such as the group you're working with) realize how unproductive the f2f meetings are?

It sounds like they don't share your frustration with the time lost to travel or with the meetings not accomplishing their purpose.

Sidon--good point about password-protected wikis and chat, although I tend to think that it may still feel too transparent to some folks. If we have a conversation that isn't recorded in some way, that leaves me some "wiggle room" to say "I didn't say that" or "That's not what I meant." There's no transcript to turn to, so no real way to capture what happened in the moment. Even in a password-protected arena, the act of writing means that I have to stand by what I've said. I think it's the same reason that people don't like to have to "put it in writing" in a memo, etc. But that's just my opinion, of course.

Just Wondering--You're probably right that groups haven't really thought about f2f being unproductive. I've observed that to many people, the act of having a meeting seems to feel like something has happened, regardless of whether or not there are meaningful outcomes. I don't think that anyone in the group I'm working with has really looked back and said "Hey--we've been asking about these same issues for a year and meeting still hasn't given us answers. Maybe we should try something else." I think that's a level of reflection that simply doesn't occur in most settings.

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