On the non-flatness of the world

My work involves a lot of conversations with people around the world. These are sometimes one-on-ones or larger meetings, sometimes with external partners/client or just with our internal team. Depending on the group and locations represented, I might be meeting in-person or by phone, skype, google hangout, or webex.

And at least once a week, I’m struck by the following thought: Thomas Friedman lied to us. He wasn’t the only one, of course. We’ve been hearing variations on the theme of “the world is flat” since before Friedman’s 2006 bestseller, though he did an especially good job of articulating the idea that improved communications would reduce the effective “distance” between parts of the world.

Yet every week, I get a reminder of the role that physical location plays in business communication. The clearest reminder is the time I spend on a skype or hangout saying, “Hey, sorry, did I lose you? Okay, you’re back now. What was I saying just before it dropped?” It’s not even a function of where you’re calling from, as I’ve encountered good connections in Nigeria and terrible connections in New York.

While it’s true that we’re able to communicate across linguistic, cultural, and geographic barriers like never before, the reality feels far from the ambition. The world is still very bumpy. Technology still doesn’t carry our shared tactile environment, nuanced facial expressions, body language, and other conversational mechanisms that create feedback and alignment.

I’ve started using an implicit heuristic for estimating meeting effectiveness and efficiency based on the technology being used—call it communication technology discounting. A distance meeting often can’t accomplish what an in-person meeting can, or at least it takes much longer to do so. Benchmarked to meeting in-person, even high-quality video/voice drops to three-quarters effectiveness, high-quality voice to two-thirds, and so on. So 30-minute in-person meeting takes proportionally longer.

An admittedly and unapologetically unscientific way to think about this:

meeting effectiveness by technology

There is actually some data that could inform this—e.g. studies looking at the effectiveness of counseling provided by video-teleconferencing versus in-person—but I haven’t seen anything that’s both rigorous and applicable to my work.

Some mitigated and moderating factors:

  • Past in-person or frequent communication: If you’ve met before, then any form of communication gets a 10% bump. If you interact often, ditto.
  • Cultural and linguistic barriers: These are hard enough to surmount when face-to-face, but will add extra lag when at a distance.
  • Creative and ambiguous endeavors: Any activity that requires people to think together requires forming a common identity, at least for a short period; the physical nature of in-person collaboration makes this an order of magnitude easier than anything virtual.

Where does email sit? Except for mass communication, email would be near the bottom of the chart. For one-on-one or small group communications, it has low efficiency in terms of information-exchanged-per-minute-spent. For most people, a well crafted message takes longer to write than to say, which more than counterbalances the fact that reading is faster than listening. The main advantage of writing is a permanence that forces clarity; a secondary advantage is that it allows for asynchronous communication (i.e. I write now, you read later). For many purposes, overcoming the loss of nuance and feedback compared to any form of voice requires even longer emails, further driving down their efficiency.

Where does this all leave the prospects for a flat world? Better technology and bandwidth will keep reducing those discounts on all forms of technology, but there’s a natural limit to what can be achieved short of teleportation. Don’t expect to get away without long international flights anytime soon.