Teleconferencing, virtual meetings, and online learning – what’s not to love?

As it turns out, plenty.

There are many good reasons to want to believe that online meetings and online training are just as valuable as face-to-face sessions. For one thing, online options are usually much cheaper and faster – no travel time, no meals, no hotel rooms. For another, many projects and subjects are either short-term or unimportant – and for these, doing it as cheaply as possible makes good sense.

But for major undertakings, the company or organization that invests in face-to-face team unity – even if much of the actual business is done online – has a major competitive advantage. It’s well-known that most of the useful human communication, the kind that gets action and results instead of just talk, involves much more than simply words. As well, it’s easy for people to take views and make commitments and decisions in the intellect, but quite another for them to really commit to a group endeavor that might require them to have some skin in the game.

A series of teleconferences between virtual strangers, versus a real team get-together, may look the same if oversight is sufficiently bad and people are just focused on box-checking – but the actual outcomes will differ like night and day. And if your competitor wins the $40M contract because of their team unity, and you lose, then saving airfares, hotels and training costs just got really expensive.

The smartest organizations make sure that critical teams and critical projects get together, face-to-face, at least once a year for teams – and at least at the beginning for an important project. The costs of not doing that are often hideous, with the Obamacare website debacle being a good example.

The truth is that online environments are good for the things that online environments do best, and face-to-face environments are good for the things that face-to-face environments do best. Anything that involves team unity, team commitment, organizational change or important projects is in the latter category. The key, as always, is to take the middle way and to choose a balanced approach.

To quote Esther Dyson, famous philanthropist and daughter of Nobel laureate Freeman Dyson, “When everyone has good systems, the last competitive advantage left is the human being.” And it’s no coincidence that Esther was also one of the pioneers of the information age.

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