FT : Face-To-Face Pre-Req To Effective Online Networking

Monday, September 24, 2007

…..Yet even as we spend more time on online social networks (or at least more time wondering what our children are doing on them), our hunger for face-to-face contact is unabated.  As I reviewed my diary for next week, I was struck by how much time and money people are prepared to invest in being in the same room with one another…..It wasn’t necessarily supposed to happen this way.  A decade ago, as electronic communication started to take off, a lot of us suspected we wouldn’t need to see each other in person quite so much, particularly if it was expensive or inconvenient to do so.  As economists Jess Gaspar and Edward Glaeser wrote in a paper in 1998: “The basic idea is that the ongoing improvements in telecommunications are creating a ‘space-less world’ in which we will all inhabit ‘electronic cottages’ and teleconference or telecommute.”  Gaspar and Glaeser argued that that popular thesis was wrong.  Instead, they predicted that better electronic communication would actually create the need and desire for more face-to-face communication.  New York’s September conference season is one reason to believe that Gaspar and Glaeser got it right.  Prof Glaeser thinks the very existence of Silicon Valley is another.  As he told me last week: “The most famous geographical cluster is in the industry that has the best access to electronic communication.”  The world’s reigning master of persuading busy people to go out of their way to spend time with each other is the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab.  I asked him, too, why he thought virtual networks hadn’t replaced human ones.  He believes meeting in person is “absolutely necessary to create a basis of trust.  If you do not have this trust, the communication will always be superficial because you will always be on your guard”…..But, in a practical application of Prof Glaeser’s theory, Prof Schwab thinks the time has come to turbo- charge his secluded personal gatherings with a 24/7 virtual community to be called Welcom…..“I feel that the most efficient networks will be networks which have a strong peer-to-peer personal dimension and a virtual dimension,” Schwab says.

Some of us suspect, as an Indian IT pioneer suggested to me, that the prevalence of human contacts at a time when virtual ones have never been easier may change when we digital immigrants give way to the digital natives.  Prof Glaeser is pretty sure that won’t happen: “It is awfully hard for one generation of computer knowledge to go against 1m years of human evolution.”  I agree.  I also think the ease of electronic communication can at times lull us into thinking that direct interaction doesn’t matter, sometimes with unfortunate consequences.  By now all of us know the perils of sending an e-mail when picking up the phone or meeting in person was what a sticky situation really required.  Yet I wonder if we think enough about the risk of other new, electronically enabled practices such as home-working.  I appreciate the convenience of working in one’s pyjamas (and that is often what I’m wearing when I finish writing this column in the early hours of the morning).  But we may think too little about the professional costs of being cut off from co-workers – a particular worry with regards to mothers, to whom working from home is often sold as a panacea.  Perhaps the credit crunch has exposed another danger of thinking that face-to-face contact no longer matters.  Many of the hardest-hit institutions have been relatively obscure and based in relatively obscure places, such as Dusseldorf’s IKB or Sachsen LB of Leipzig.  Working in one of the world’s global financial centres is no guarantee against making mistakes, of course – just ask Bear Sterns – but as Prof Glaeser put it: “You will learn things being part of the maelstrom of Wall Street that you will never learn being part of a German bank in Leipzig.”

Reference :  http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6fcf0a3c-67e4-11dc-8906-0000779fd2ac.html

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