Meeting in the Realm of Digital Working

teleconf

You are craning forwards to hear the voice of someone else on the “call” – the virtual meeting, once known as the teleconference, and now with added video or, worse, Power Point. Even worse than that the voice is so clear at the other end of the “call” it sounds like Hal from the movie 2001.

You’re attending a webinar and the only saving grace of this hour of utter bullet pointed tedium is that you can’t physically see the person to whom this monotone and insincere voice is attached.

You’re notice that more of your meetings are “virtual” and your eyes are tired from staring at the screen and listening to voices that sound like poor versions of reality.

This is the realm of digital working where the “virtual” meeting has begun to replace the physical one, usually transferring the worst aspects of a bad physical meeting rather than transposing it into something new.

Online “virtual” meetings make use of virtual platforms such as Webex, Live Meeting, and, increasingly, Skype.

Most of these meetings I have attended in the last couple of years make few real decisions that arent later confirmed either face to face, by one to one telephone, and, of course, by email.

Webinars and virtual presentations lack the live feel as they project tedious bullet pointed Power Point onto screens, resembling too readily the worst of the physical conference room.

Of course there are examples of good practice here and you may have experienced them, just as you have in the physical world of work. There are good presenters and there are poor presenters, good and bad facilitators as well.

The digital realm is not a naturally human realm. It is, essentially, abhuman – it resembles human process in some ways, but not in others. The flashing of a screen at a pace beyond our ability to see it is the stuff of hypnosis, and digital sound is sound simplified also into ones and zeros, detaching from the nuance of the air of physical breath. It isn’t that it is somehow worse than the physical, but its alien qualities do not lend themselves to relaxed communication until all players get very used to the game. Even recent developments in the quality of telepresence and video presence systems that attempt to mimic human presence in a more real way make us of subliminal flashing technology and there’s still something of the fairground fakery about them. If this sounds like I am speaking out against these technologies, I’m not. I’m describing how human beings effectively communicate and, when technologies are clunkily present, even the process of getting used to them and forgetting they are there drains the resources in the human being that are usually used for more relaxed, authentic and natural communication. Tele- and videopresencing at the higher cost end do deliver a better and more life-like user experience but there’s still something subtle that eludes it. One thing I have notice seems to flee from even the most creative conversations using this technology is what is sometimes called “mojo” or spark, and when it is apparently there, it seems to appear in an exaggerated form of itself. Essentially people are role playing their mojo, and aping charisma. If it were theatre, it would never be reviewed as “entirely believable”.

Often online meetings sound like versions of ourselves. Tone of voice changes and even when we think we sound natural and normal, playing a recording of how we sound “online” can make us experience stranger-like qualities in our own voices. We morph, change and adapt, not always consciously, and this often creates a subconscious reaction to a lack of natural authenticity that leads to:

– talking longer than we normally would and phrasing more clumsily (though in some of us quite the opposite happens and we flow more fluently but it still feels a bit fake or artificial)
– polarising in order to simplify – without physical nuance we can go into either-or mode which is at its very worst via SMS
– some voices sounding monotone, over-polite, even robotic and not making fuller use of voice tonal range
– plenty of interrupting each other and clumsiness without the visual clues
– a feeling of soullessness (laughter nearly always sounds more manic if you play it back)

Meeting in the digital realm of work is currently achieved through clunky platforms, quality-varying sound, and a feeling of detachment and lack of true connectedness. It takes much imagination to bridge the gap and video rarely does it.

The promise from the technophiles is that this will all change for the better as the innovation train speeds up.

Meanwhile, virtual meeting is often a bit insane, twisted, plain boring, or lacking depth and enough oomph to reach in to the human level of will and real action. So, hot air exceeds down to earth doing.

A myth often arises that this isn’t true but I see little evidence personally of virtual meetings and “webinars” bringing human communication to life. Inspiration and action flees from them. And it is a lie that they work well – they are talked up because no one wants to admit the Emperor is not wearing any clothes.

I’ve been involved in some alternatives that tap far more into the physical elements and skills that do seem to bring virtual meeting to life. One is IBF Live and the other is the 24 hour visual broadcast, Digital Workplace 24.

Yes, broadcast. Not webinar. Hosted by myself and Paul Miller, this form of meeting (and many of Paul Miller’s company DWG’s meetings) is more akin to radio – chat radio – around a table (in this case a virtual one) where conversation just happens to use a digital platform as the medium of interaction but where people essentially talk to each other in a relaxed, less formal way. Content sits easily and is effective because people essentially bypass the clunkiness of the medium and talk to each other across imagined space. We aren’t meeting online, we are talking to each other across space, making use of technology.

Conversation, when there is flow, and when there is engaged, active listening, can transpose into the real of digital working. Much of our human “natural” authenticity can transfer but we also have to improvise in a more mindful aware – becoming self-aware of the distorting impact of the medium upon us. We can pitch into either-or, we can drift into exaggeration and hype (“amazing”) or we can pitch into the opposite of that – underplaying and becoming monotone and cautious in our voice. We can “play up” the medium itself, colluding with the mediocrity of the conversation instead of challenging it, and naming the lack of resulting needed action.

Conversation in digital working is an acquired ability that is rather strange to describe.It involves, not going “in” to the digital work place, but instead learning to naturally and calmly holding our own, communicating with the digital platform as tool, talking via it, not “through it”. The human being stands (or sits or even lies down) in the physical world. If we attempt to “go in” with avatar imagination the natural clumsiness of human physicality will fail to be fluent in the abhuman form of digital “realms”. We are at our best when we hold where and how we are, adapting with conscious improvisation, not nervous reaction. It’s hard to achieve but it is a learnable skill.

Conversation flows with ease because, the technology is seen in perspective – it is not the means for communication, it is the tool, one which requires our human communication skills to use well – just as a craftsman uses a tool well or badly. Our skills are eloquence, improvisation and the ability to use a script, not as a crutch, but as a simple guide.

We dialogue across the virtual table. we breathe naturally and don’t find the silences embarrassing. We are ourselves and not “avatars” and we do not need to “work” the technology, the technology works for us.

Visual radio – the ability to speak to each other and broadcast to an audience or share interactively in a group, whilst sharing, not static bullet point content, but live content – going live onto an intranet, clicking around, sharing desktops and going forwards and backwards, off at needed tangents, facilitated and sometimes emergent. Always ready to react authentically, being ourselves.

Visual radio – moving around our content in the same way we might walk around a room, not always staring at the screen but often talking to each other in the real room too (where that is possible).

We remain rooted to a real floor, feeling ourselves physically on the chair. We use real eyes to see and our mouths to talk, smile and scowl. There is no “digital work place” we go into, we remain in physical reality, and the technology is a tool and connects us without needing to change us. We do not go into the internet – the medium simply carries our voices as if we were speaking to each other in a room, in a cafe! Of course there may be voice distortion, and the screens may still flash in ways beyond our normal sight, but we don’t look at the screen more than necessary. With radio, the pictures are clearer than with video.

This is a new skill set, a new set of competencies for those working in the realm of digital working. But mostly they are permission to be informal, normal and not wowed by geeky technology.

Broadcasting in the style of radio wonderfully undermines the formal classroom feel of the webinar – a version of crap physical conferencing. The new skill set involves:

– knowing when to meet physically and when to meet virtually (and when not to)
– choosing the most effective tool – the platform – the hardware
– practising and learning the skills of authentic speaking and easing into chat radio style
– developing the skills of rapport and flow between people: the skills of conversation without visual clues
– learning how to design and use visual material and how to move it so it truly enhances sharing and meeting
– learning how to strengthen the will so that real decisions get made and seen through to action back in the physical realm
– becoming aware of your corporate speak voice tone and choice of words – dumping the demonic you
– making smart and wise use of digital interaction and conversation

I’m increasingly working in this field and you can discover more in my forthcoming book Learning to Dance with Spiders. My blog that contains background material for the book is here: https://digitalinferno.wordpress.com

I can also help you create and broadcast, share and facilitate authentic meetings in the realm of digital working.

Contact me for a chat, and I’d welcome feedback on the book.

See you round the digital conversation table sometime soon?

Paul Levy

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on May 13, 2013, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I mostly agree, but must admit that Cisco Systems’ TelePresence is pretty awesome – the one time I used it I did feel like I was in an episode of Star Trek. It has sound quality good enough to audition classical musicians. Visuals not too shabby either. Pretty pricey though.
    http://www.cisco.com/web/about/ciscoitatwork/collaboration/telepresence_virtual_meetings.html

    • Thanks Viv – but how acoustically natural were people?Even on high quality telepresence I think the “presence” gets changed, in subtle ways. But the Devil was ever good at deception…

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