Social collaboration vs face to face time

There is an episode in The West Wing where wheelchair-bound President Bartlett bemoans the fact he can’t be physically present for crucial negotiations. “Decisions are made in the room!” he cries.

I was reminded of this on Friday – and how important this is in the workplace, and what this means for social software where almost by default we are not physically present alongside those with whom we interact.

So – Friday was my last day before a weeks holiday, and I was due to attend IBM ‘induction’ training in Hursley (near Winchester). I didn’t want to go. I’d worked pretty much non-stop over Christmas and up to New Year’s Eve – then unexpectedly had to go over to Sweden on Sunday 2nd January for a client meeting when I’d hoped to take advantage of the New Year’s holiday to step back a bit and plan for the following year. So I figured I might skip the induction (I’ve worked at IBM before, actually run several IBM induction course myself, and have been working here for over 3 months, so wasn’t convinced I’d need it), work from home to tie up loose ends, do some of the planning I’d hoped to do over the New Year break and make sure everything was covered over my holiday, rather than get up at 6am to head to Winchester.

But I went. Hursley has a lot of good memories for me from when I worked at IBM during my gap year, and I didn’t want to be the complete arse who thinks they’re too good for training courses (no sarcastic comments please ;-) ).

Then the following happened:

* I had lunch with another IBMer who is really keen on social software and works with our beta customers. She clearly had a passion for social business and wanted to hear about how real customers were using Connections as she mainly only dealt with the technical aspects of our beta programmes. It’s always good to meet people with a similar passion and also to get a contact in our beta team.

* I had coffee with my first boss at IBM (when I was 17) – it was fantastic to see an old friend and mentor.

* On the way back from the training course room to reception someone held the door open for me. They have just joined IBM and work in our tele-sales function. I was able to have a brief corridor conversation about identifying opportunities for social software and pass on my contact details if he ever needed help talking with or qualifying a call at the early stages. This could be a great way for me to start to work more closely with our tele operation and get them confident on Connections given they cover our entire portfolio.

* I then shared a taxi with someone who happened to be in reception to Winchester station. He was an IBM Global Business Services Partner who on hearing my role was keen to know how his team could use Connections better internally within IBM to collaborate. Of course, once he starts to use it every day he will be more likely and able to talk to his clients about social business opportunities

* Walking back through King’s Cross station, I ran into a friend from University who I have not seen in over 10 years. We swapped contact details.

Whilst I appreciate the flexibility I have to work from home when I want or need to, and would struggle to work in a culture where I was expected to be in the office at all times, this really got me thinking about the number of coincidences I miss out on every time I am not in the room. Further, does this highlight a problem with social software, whereby employees are seduced into thinking they are building online relationships, whereas in fact they are missing out on valuable face to face time and serendipity moments that occur around the watercooler?

I don’t think so. I have always maintained that social networking enhances and supports existing ‘real’ relationships rather than replacing them. I don’t think I’m friends with anyone on Facebook I met online – it is a way of staying in touch with people with whom I had an existing friendship. I may follow people on Twitter who I find interesting who I haven’t met, but I only really engage with people I know in the real world.

It’s the same in the workplace. I am going to spend a lot of time in January traveling to the countries I have responsibility for, and meeting the teams there face to face. But I can’t be in the room all the time in Sweden, UK, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland…. I need social tools to create the online equivalent of what I experienced on Friday – randomly seeing that someone is going to see a customer that I’ve been meaning to talk to, or catching a competitive presentation coming out of some work in the US which is highly relevant to a situation I happen to find myself in in Finland. Social tools facilitate the online equivalent of shared taxi rides and corridor conversations that I enjoyed in Hursley, and, because it’s online, they happen far more frequently, and are not restricted by geography or time (I can see something interesting posted six hours or even days or weeks after it has happened, I don’t need to be around at the precise moment as I do in the real world). But they have to supplement those face to face encounters – and you should never willingly accept not being in the room if you possibly can be. You need both to be effective in the modern workplace

Speaking of which, I will be at Lotusphere in Orlando during the first week of February, and social business has prime position on this year’s agenda. Drop me a line if you want to catch up (face to face) there!

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