Virtual teams and business relationships without any physical presence can work, once the on-line techniques and tools are learned. But when misunderstandings, lapses, or failures occur, on-line tools and those who use them often lack the means to recover.
Remote, non-physical relationships are not new. Initially, however, they were conducted by human intermediaries such as diplomats -- ambassadors, emissaries, and the like – who were selected for their sensitivity to language, culture, etiquette, character, as well as mission. Diplomatic skills raise the probability that politicians or businessmen can be successful together virtually, even if they never see or meet in person. Diplomatic skills work not only because they raise the probability that messages are accurately delivered, understood, and mutual interests advanced, but also because they lay the groundwork for recovery when a relationship goes south and disputes must be resolved.
Yet for diplomacy to work, the participants must have both the means and the time to conduct a social relationship. Today's digital communications, combined with globalization, and the push for ever greater productivity via virtual teams and business relationships, makes establishing, stabilizing and maintaining a relationship difficult. We are pushed to conduct social relationships in decidedly non-social time frames. It is an experiment in speed-dating on a massive scale.
Not only are we expected to speed-date into new business relationships, whether colleagues or customers, but to do so with an array of real-time and near real-time technologies that are often brand new, poorly understood and difficult to control. Each new communications channel is like a shiny new toy, with some new intrinsic property we may find appealing – immediacy, a-synchronicity, brevity, etc. But in the mix with established technologies, without established social norms developed over longer durations, communications may only worsen.
Diplomacy and politesse have to be relearned, often painfully, as every new communications technology takes hold. This was true of writing, telegraphy, telephony, and now e-mail, IM, texting, twittering and the entire spectrum of on-line social software. Every new communications technology over history has eventually adopted and evolved core diplomatic skills, but the process proceeds by trial and error, and moves forward fitfully. We do eventually evolve, adapt and adopt, but our physical, biological, cultural and genetic nature don't go virtual just because our social relationships do (c.f., "Blown to Bits" by Evans and Wurster, "Being Digital", by Negroponte, "Social Life of Information", by Brown, and many others).
Immediacy combined with anonymity can create rapid, negative feedback loops that can quickly destroy working relationships, sometimes irreparably. The effect was first noticed with email "flame wars" and newsgroup postings, but the same behavior can be seen in blog comment threads, texting, twittering, etc. Such negative feedback loops is inherent to the technology, and only human judgment can mitigate it.
Here are some of my recommendations for diplomatic communications in an inhumane age:
- Just because a new communications technology exists doesn't mean you have to use it. There are many ways to convey and receive information, each with its pluses and minuses, but if you can, stick to the ones you have mastered. If you're better on the phone, use your voice; if you're a better writer, stick to email. There are usually no prizes for being an early adopter, despite the hype.
- Even before the recent digital flood, some consultancies had specialized as facilitators, combining a core set of techniques for getting people to communicate and work together effectively toward a common goal. Yet we don't appear to use facilitation as much anymore, even when the plethora of communications channels would suggest we should use them more. Hire a Webex facilitator to help you host an on-line meeting; it is well worth the one hundred bucks.
- Encourage your company to consider using unified communications technologies, because they introduce a control-console that can put you on top of your communications instead of being victimized by them. Everyone now has both corporate/enterprise options and nearly free Internet alternatives. Make the effort to unify your personal information in one virtual place and don't spread it around like so many leather-bound address books collected over the years.
- Don't neglect human nature: We are not becoming non-physical beings, and you are not your on-line avatar. Allocate the time to develop and maintain relationships and don't expect them to become robust instantaneously. Prepare for your on-line meetings, don't just show up and expect some speed-dating miracle. Judiciously use your travel budget to meet people in person, even if only for a few moments – it is money well spent.
- Don't let on-line disputes escalate; when necessary, intervene and become the diplomat. Be prepared to terminate communications, or switch to another communications mode, before irreparable negative feedback loops are created.
Encouragingly, software is becoming better at helping individuals manage multiple channels – this is an interesting article about an IBM application that uses simple data consolidation techniques to help people within virtual meetings.