Monday, December 30, 2013

The Limits of Virtual

By Steven Worth, President, Plexus Consulting LLC

In the early years (1990-93) when we were laying the framework for the global firm that Deloitte, Touche, Tohmatsu would later become I recall seeing the eye-popping travel expenses we were incurring as well as the reaction of senior management. Were these costs really necessary? Couldn't we invest a fraction of these expenses into audio-visual technology that would enable us to meet with our colleagues around the world real-time without ever leaving our offices?

Apart from the expense of travel, those who spend a good deal of time on the road know there is also considerable hassle and inconvenience associated with building your frequent flyer miles—so why not rely on video teleconferencing instead and leave the jet lag and travel delays to others? The idea found traction and Deloitte did invest considerable sums of money in teleconferencing technology and we did get great use out of it—but we also discovered its limitations.

Management groups that relied primarily on video teleconferencing to coordinate their activities found that over time certain hard-to-define frustrations often built up and that they needed periodic face-to-face meetings to clear things up. Within minutes of meeting face-to-face, misunderstandings and tensions disappeared like a morning fog with the sun. We came to conclude that as the social animals that human beings are, communication is not limited to the written or spoken word. We need face time as well.

We came to appreciate the difference between “high context” and “low context” cultures. The US, Canada and North-Western Europe are mostly low context cultures—that is, we don’t need to know people very well to feel comfortable doing business with them. We can and do sign contracts with people we have literally just met. But most of the rest of the world doesn't work this way. They are high context cultures who would never undertake any serious engagement with anyone without first developing a solid understanding of the person. They rely less on lawyers and contracts and more on personal trust based on family ties and friendships—which in turn are based on frequent, face-to-face contact. So we came to understand that if we wanted to work effectively in these cultures, we needed purposefully to get out of our offices and meet our clients and business associates face-to-face on their home turf.

Technology is critical, but it does have its limitations—as every family who has had a teenager texting at the dinner table knows…..

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