Saturday, November 14, 2009

Showdown at the Meetings Corral: Face-to-Face vs. Virtual

In my opinion, well-designed face-to-face meetings will be the premier leadership medium of the 21st Century. While some people think virtual meetings will overtake face-to-face, I think they're fooling themselves. Live meetings are now, and will continue to be, an essential means of managing our way out of the economic crisis we currently face and navigating our way into a vibrant future.

Of course, many organizations are turning to virtual alternatives to bringing people together with tons of intriguing technologies that can be used before, during, after, or yes, even in place of, a face-to-face meeting. Twitter, threaded discussions, teleconferencing, web conferences, webcasting etc. are all being used frequently to augment face-to-face interaction.

I've been a strong proponent of collaborative technologies to connect, inform, and engage people for over two decades. However, I also believe that there is no replacement for face-to-face meetings. This is why Presidents and Secretaries of State don't conduct diplomatic missions via web conference.

There are three important ways that face-to-face meetings differ from virtual ones. First, in our information-saturated world, getting people's attention gets more difficult all the time. Face-to-face meetings provide an unparalleled opportunity to capture people's attention -- it's a maximum bandwidth situation, so to speak. (This of course assumes that the meeting has been well-designed to hold participants' attention and appeal to all five senses.)

Second, there is the immersion factor. Face-to-face meetings can last days, not hours. And the experience is full immersion. While you might be able to hold a threaded discussion over an extended period, you don't have everyone engaged at once for hours at a time.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the speed at which trusting relationships can form. People will develop deeper levels of trust at a greater rate of speed in face-to-face meetings than they do in virtual ones. Trust is directly correlated with the speed at which you can do business.

What we're obviously moving towards is a "both/and" versus "either/or" situation in the form of hybrid meetings that integrate face-to-face with virtual elements. In other words, it's time to put the guns back in the holsters and shake hands.

Moving into the future, we'll have more holographic videoconferencing, virtual world interaction, dynamic visual cartography tools and much more. However, now matter how ingenious technology becomes, nothing will ever replace face-to-face interaction.