The Cost of Online-Only Interactions

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In January 2021, Silicon Valley (where I live) emerged from a 2-month “shelter-in-place” order. Although I have found working from home to be fairly tolerable, the primary thing missing for me is the serendipity of unexpected interactions: hallway conversations with colleagues, grabbing coffee with a client, and all the experiences you have while traveling for work.

I think the main problem with online-only interactions is that they are too structured. Even relatively unstructured online interactions have constraints put on them by the limitations of the device, the technology, and the user interface. For example, in most video conferencing systems, there can be a time lag between speakers and reduced visual cues. When more than two or three people are involved, this tends to make interactions more “lecture style” with sequential speakers, rather than a free-flowing conversation.

I’ll provide another scenario from my own work experience. Last spring, GlobalLogic started doing online advisories during the pandemic to help clients design and architect new or next-gen systems. In the past, I always relied on onsite visits and face-to-face interactions, so I was initially skeptical about how well an entirely online approach to brainstorming and information gathering would work. Happily, I found that online interviews can be more effective when interviewing busy subject matter experts (SMEs) such as surgeons, investors, and CXOs. Where in the past I would have to chase these busy people around the globe, now I could schedule interviews at their convenience.

But everything has a cost. The cost of information gathering and brainstorming online is that by necessity, the interactions have become more structured. People have to speak more-or-less one at a time, and while you can structure interactive discussions and side conversations, you need to plan them. You don’t have spontaneous interactions over lunch, you don’t pick up behavioral cues from people in their work environment, and you can’t read people’s body language in the same way. You can have sidebar conversations through the chat system of a video conference, but even that is more formal that a whispered question or remark.

What’s wrong with more formality? It increases the odds of missing something that you didn’t know to ask about, because the “serendipity” factor goes down compared to face-to-face. A key maxim we take into any advisory is: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” In other words, everyone remains ignorant of the areas they don’t know enough to ask about. You obviously try to shrink those areas into insignificance by doing your homework ahead of time, but when you are designing and architecting a new system that’s central to a company’s business, you have to be humble enough to realize that you won’t know everything. Even for the long-term players within a business, there is generally no one individual who knows everything about all aspects of a company’s business and technologies. The knowledge is always in many heads, and it’s my team’s job to extract what’s meaningful from a wide variety of SMEs.

We’ve had success bridging this gap by asking open-ended questions like, “Please lead us through this process from end-to-end,” and “Please tell us anything you think we need to know that we didn’t ask about.” We also use “mirroring” to reflect back our current understanding for clarification because, although people may not fully answer a question when you ask it, they are almost always willing to correct you. Nevertheless, there’s still a risk that an SME will assume you know something because they take it for granted. It’s the “fish in water” effect. We’ve now learned to be super-aware of such potential gaps since the “serendipity” we gain through physical interaction is not present online.

In time, I think technology and people’s comfort with technology will bring more serendipity to the online experience than it currently does. Even today, in an advisory  setting, we could theoretically mimic an onsite visit using technology. We could “look over people’s shoulders” as they worked by using screen sharing. We could even visit the office or worksite using telepresence robots, helmet- or glasses-mounted cameras, and “see what I see” AR technology. In some areas like training, we are using all of these technologies today. However, for the demographic of most current-generation SMEs, this technology is still seen as unusual and intrusive enough that it would not be accepted, or would change people’s behavior.

I don’t think online interactions necessarily have to be more limited than physical ones. I really believe that the distinction between online and physical will continue to blur until the two merge into an augmented, enhanced reality blend. But we are far from that today.

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Dr. Jim Walsh

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