Virtually out of their shells

How much do you like meetings? Enough to attend them even if presented with a way out? If you're totally averse to them -- but of course, no serious manager would admit to that -- a research project at the University of Waikato has been studying an alternative.

How much do you like meetings? Enough to attend them even if presented with a way out? If you’re totally averse to them -- but of course, no serious manager would admit to that -- a research project at the University of Waikato has been studying an alternative.

Annick Janson is a lecturer and PhD student in the university’s management school. A project she undertook in "virtual communications" has proved such a success it’s taken on a life of its own. Janson says she established in the course of a six-week trial that virtual communications works -- under certain conditions.

What is virtual communications? Nothing too complicated, actually. In fact, the email we all exchange day in, day out could be called virtual communications. Instant messaging, which I refuse to have any part of -- email is insistent enough -- is another variation on the theme. But what Janson is talking about is a little more managed than either of those two modes of communicating.

For the purposes of her project, communications were conducted via a list server. But since the six-week project ran its course, the group whom she set going are continuing to communicate through a website.

Janson says the key to getting virtual communications to flourish isn’t the technology -- "it’s very easy for IT people to get carried away with technology" -- so much as putting the right conditions in place. That involves giving people "the tools, the virtual space and the justification" to conduct meetings of minds in the ether. And then you might be in for a surprise.

The biggest of them for the researcher was that the people who take a lead in virtual communications will not necessarily be those who dominate in a face-to-face meeting. Of itself that may not be so surprising. After all, some of us are less verbal than others. The interesting thing is that such people now have a way of expressing ideas which hitherto remained bottled up. The effectiveness of communications should be "judged in terms of actions, not words", Janson says.

So aside from being more efficient than collecting a group of people together in one place at one time, virtual communications has the benefit of tapping into a new pool of ideas. But experts tell us that as much as 90% of what we communicate is transmitted non-verbally. Surely, then, virtual communications sacrifices a lot for the sake of bringing a few out of their shells? The answer is video-conferencing which, by the estimate of New Zealand software pioneer John Blackham, is five to 10 years from reaching a mass market. The key to that, Blackham thinks, is screens that are large enough -- and cheap enough -- to reintroduce the non-verbal cues into long-distance communications. But what about the shrinking violets among us? We can always direct the camera at the view out the window.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Phone him with editorial suggestions on 09 302 8763. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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