Interacting through social media is the latest craze. Consumer applications like Facebook, wikis and Twitter, along with
collaboration software such as SharePoint—not to mention e-mail and instant messaging—are supposed to make
us more productive. Yet we seem to be developing an aversion to personal interaction that
threatens to make us less effective, not more so.
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It’s long been the case that people e-mail each other rather than get up and talk with their
neighbors. People screen their calls and let them go to voice mail rather than talk to the
person trying to reach them. We also avoid meetings. I know there are organizational
dynamics that can make meetings awful, but it seems to me that we’re using that as an excuse
to avoid talking face to face. One senior manager told me that if a meeting is scheduled for
more than an hour, he refuses to go.
There are good reasons for avoiding phone calls and meetings. Sometimes you don’t want to be
interrupted, and badly-run meetings are a waste of time. Social technology makes it easy for
us to stay connected—and get work done—without personal contact. But we also
need to bring people together to share information, strategize, brainstorm, network and
build relationships. As CIOs who wish to marshal the benefits of social software, we must
make sure we don’t lose the benefits of personal, rather than virtual, interaction.
Different Ways We Socialize
If you look at different generations, you can see a difference in their attitudes toward
social interaction. People my parents’ age regularly socialize with their friends in person.
Whenever I invite my parents to a quiet restaurant they complain because they want to go
somewhere bustling with “atmosphere.” My friends and I are more content to e-mail, IM, chat
on the cell, network on LinkedIn and socialize occasionally as a complement to our
electronic communication. Generation Y uses online social networks intensely, but also
places heavy reliance on getting together with peers in person.
Personality plays a role too. Introverts are drained by social interaction and prefer to
work in solitude, with short periods of contact as necessary. Extroverts get energized by
their dealings with others—but even for them, technology may be replacing the up close
The CIO as Social Director
Given the diverse approaches that people have to interacting with others, how should a CIO
manage the use of interactive technology? Clearly, social media and digital communications
open up new possibilities for information sharing and innovation. They are great for collaborating in a geographically dispersed environment, providing feedback and sharing ideas
generally. We should pursue them vigorously.
At the same time, we need to be mindful that we encourage appropriate levels of face-to-face
interaction. In particular, being in the same room trumps long-distance communication when
you want to give constructive criticism or need to work through challenging problems.
Streaming bits and bytes will never replace looking someone in the eye, watching for
informal cues and sharing real-life experiences.
The key is to ensure that we synthesize technology with opportunities for direct human
interaction so that we enable a diverse set of capabilities. For example, you can webcast a
meeting for 50,000 employees around the world and follow it with in-person,
question-and-answer sessions in local offices. And you can capture the feedback from these
local meetings to a centralized knowledge-base for follow-up action. This is the balance
that is needed between virtual and real.