There has been an recurrent question about the viability of telework ever since we first started our research. The focus of the concern was the need—or lack thereof of—for face-to-face interaction in order to have success at X, where X is whatever work outcome is at issue. That is, is your average teleworker at a disadvantage because she substitutes Facebook (or Skype or Twitter) time for in-office face time? On 15 November 2010 the Financial Times published two articles, both focusing on business education, relevant to this problem. The first article, on page 16 of the US edition, discussed the plans of the Kenan-Flagler School at the University of North Carolina to offer an MBA via distance learning. As to the demand for such a program:
“It really brings together a lot of trends we have seen around the world,” says the dean, in particular students’ willingness to use the technology. “The population of students, people in their 20s and 30s, are so comfortable with technology and technology-mediated learning.”
Further into the article we have:
“Five years down the line I think essentially everything we do will be online,” [Chris Brady, dean of the business school at BPP] says. He believes students will be able to choose whether to study online or in a classroom, depending on convenience and cost. “Even if you are a student studying face-to-face, you would still have access to everything online.” He believes this will be the path taken by most mid-range schools. “If they don’t, they can’t grow.”
All this is particularly interesting to me since Stanford University and the University of Southern California began giving MS in Engineering degrees in the early 1970s, 35+ years before this innovation among the business schools. But then, engineers don’t really need to be able to talk to other people face-to-face, right? In general, these engineers showed up on campus only twice: once to register for the courses, the next time to accept their MS degrees. Now, of course, they can register online.
For contrast we have the second article in the FT on page 17, by Sir Andrew Likierman, titled: Technology enhances but never substitutes. The crux of Sir Andrew’s argument is:
Learning in a group enables participants to pick up the subtleties of the interactions that are essential to management. The ability to understand not only what is said, but what is not, to negotiate and ultimately persuade is as important as having the right facts. Debating with faculty and fellow students builds the confidence to put forward ideas.
In the early 1970s, with its relative dearth of rich technologies, Sir Andrew’s point would have been quite appropriate. But now, I’m not so sure. In those early i-days one of my colleagues complained that she had to spend far too much time going around to her co-workers explaining what her emails actually meant (as opposed to what they thought she meant). Email is not a rich technology. But with the blossoming of several so-called social networking technologies the pallet of communicating options has grown to where many subtleties of interaction are available that were considered unlikely even a decade ago.
One of the key issues in designing telework programs is determining the allowable/desirable frequency of teleworking versus in-office face time. As Sir Andrew insisted, an important part of managing involves mastering the subtleties of effective communication with other human beings. Really effective communication long has been thought to require looking the other guy in the eye. Well, at least some of the time.
In my opinion, given the technology available today, 90%+ of most business situations (other than the obvious hands-on things like your annual medical checkup) do not require face-time; Facebook time (or its equivalent) may suffice. Except for those folks who are technology-challenged.
Yet tradition still seems to have an iron grip among the over-30s. As has been the case since the 1970s far fewer people are actually teleworking today—and wasting far too much energy in the process—than could be.