The question for today is whether access to excellent two-way video conferencing technology can replace personal face-to-face communication. While my focus is usually on educational contexts, I decided to reach out to a local entrepreneur who recently sold his start-up company to a large Scandinavian corporation to see how he used video conferencing to support the integration of his little company into the big parent company. I thought there would be lessons that could apply to two-way video-enabled educational systems. The short answer, detailed below, is that video conferencing is not a panacea.
The potential benefits of video conferencing are obvious: no need for travel to a single location (saving both money and time) and, as a result, the potential for fast and timely responses to communication needs that may arise, something perhaps more urgent in business than in education. In the case study I’m presenting today, I will denote the entrepreneur by K, his start-up location by C, and the acquiring large company by S. The acquisition occurred in the fall of 2016, and the integration phase, in which a team from S must be brought up to speed to implement products using C’s proprietary technology, is still going on. K was happy to share his video-conferencing experience for me to use in this blog.
Facilities: S is a large corporation with huge resources. It uses a high-quality WebEx-based video-conferencing system that has been, to some degree, customized to their specifications. K reports that while there are occasional internet hiccups, such as echoes or send/receive delays that disrupt the flow, the system is basically reliable and offers both video and voice multi-site communication with the added ability to share computer screens during a conference.
Timing: Because S is in Scandinavia and C is in the eastern US, there is a six-hour time difference between corporate locations, and unless K’s team is prepared to start early in the morning and/or the corresponding S team is prepared to stay late, the working-day overlap is short, which impacts scheduling. But as I learned from K, while this has been something of a problem during this integration phase, it is not the largest problem.
The Good News: The ability to meet quickly (presuming enough scheduling flexibility in the face of the time difference between company C and company S) and the obviation of international travel makes video conferencing highly valuable, both in terms of time and money saved. K is quite clear that these are both real and important benefits.
The Bad News: The integration of company C into company S has some parallels to an educational situation in which a teacher, in this case, K, needs to communicate a lot of new ideas to a team at company S. At the start of the process, K doesn’t know the members of team S, just like the start of a semester class. K can’t optimize how he teaches about the technology until he understands – now using my language – the cognitive frameworks of the various members of team S.
K’s second goal, beyond teaching the technology, is, as he put it, a diplomatic one: to get full buy-in from team S. There must be enough back-and-forth to establish a level of trust of K by team S and to nurture the motivation for success, the passion, within team S. The members of team S, if they are going to be effective in implementing company C’s technology, need to buy into the project and give it their serious attention, not just as a job, but as a commitment of effort. The educational analogy for a member of team S would be the difference between a student enrolled in a loathed but required course compared to taking the class because he or she is passionate about learning the subject. Clearly, K prefers the latter and must pay a lot of attention to personal motivational issues.
To achieve these goals, K reports that he cannot rely solely on video conferencing. He needs direct face-to-face communication to get the team members from the two companies to know each other and each other’s work culture. Once a base level of familiarity is established, which has required multiple visits to Scandinavia in the last nine months, K has found video conferencing useful for maintaining communication and that essential level of coherence and commitment to the joint project. But even after this introduction phase is completed, K asserts that he must and will maintain a schedule of regular visits, in person, travelling to location S, even in the absence of some kind of technical crisis that might require his personal participation. The team atmosphere and culture need regular face-to-face nurture.
The extrapolation of this experience to fully online video-based education does not yield a favorable prognosis. The ‘getting-to-know’ phase, in K’s experience, has required face-to-face, eye-to-eye, voice-to-voice, contact. By analogy, a teacher’s ability to ‘get to know’ his or her students is less effective via video than in person, and a fully online course does not offer the option to travel and gather.
One Incredible Surprise: K reports that when video conferencing with team S, the members of team S often block their own video cameras, making them invisible. What? This means, first of all, that this particular case study is not the kind of rigorous test case I was seeking, but it is nevertheless a real example, with future products, sales, and profits on the line. Incredible as it seems to me, the participants at company S, by choice and with company permission, undercut many aspects of potential value in video conferencing. All non-verbal clues are suppressed, reducing the communication to the equivalent of a telephone conference.