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Can we talk – in person? (Computerworld) June 27, 1994

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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I’ve finally given in. After fighting it for years, I now have E-mail. And voice mail. And a fax machine. With a computer at the office, one at home and a laptop for the road, I’m wired and networked to the hilt, loaded for bear in this fiber-optic world.

You know what I’ve discovered? Everybody’s sending me information, but nobody talks to me anymore. The great irony is that will all we hear about the information super-highway and data streaking across the world, people are hunkered over their workstations and are talking to one another less and less.

This stuck me most powerfully one day when I got up from my whiz-bang workstation and decided to engage in that ancient ritual of leadership, “management by walking around.” With 1,000 people working where I do and 7,500 student customers, this has been a useful way to stay in touch.

Five years ago, when I walked through the administration building, 75% of the people would look up from their work and talk to me. This time, all eyes were focused on cursors — there wasn’t a moment of human contact. So much for my walk.

Later it occurred to me that many on that particular floor are fund-raisers and public relations people whose constituencies are beyond our walls. How, I wondered, can we make the personal contacts and connections that warm people toward our institution if they’re using only computers, faxes and E-mail? We can’t.

The trick about all these devices is they make you look like, and even feel like, you are communicating when often you are not. After tapping keyboards and communicating through modems all day, we can go home properly exhausted and feeling effective, the warrior class of the new information age. In fact, those of us in people-oriented fields now often make it through a day without any person-to-person communication.

We cruise on the information superhighway, but lo and behold, most of us no longer deal directly with one another, and the person-to-person side of our work is becoming the road less traveled. On my university’s organizational chart, I have moved from the box at the top of a pyramid to a dot in the center of a circle. Part of the reason for this nonhierarchial arrangement is to foster communication. But what I’m finding fostered is more communication, not better. Sometimes I feel like the “Midnight Cowboy” who left the quiet ranch for New York, only to find that “everybody’s talkin’ at me.” Except they’re faxin’, E-mailin’ and voice mailin’ at me. More talkin’ at me would be welcome!

In the future, more people will work from home. We’ll share data and coexist on interactive, on-line, electronic networks. Translation: User friendliness will replace people friendliness. Not to worry. The breakthrough with CD-ROM into virtual reality may lead us to virtual relationships.

Add it up and we’re redefining the word communicate. We don’t talk; we shar data. Yes, we are transcending the barriers of time, space and form. But that had better not make the handshake obsolete. Looking up from the computer screen, talking to our colleagues and actually calling on the customer will still work better than anything so far from Microsoft.

They say it is the simple idea that has staying power. How about this: We all switch our computers off for one hour tomorrow and talk.

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