To Be Virtual or Not to Be: That is Not the Question

Today’s newspapers have wonderfully conflicting stories. One story is about Ministers of Parliament (MPs) in the UK being angry over their ‘virtual parliament’ coming to an end.* The other story is the opposite, about the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, facing criticism from his Cabinet because they are continuing to meet via online video conferencing rather than getting together for face-to-face cabinet meetings.** These are fascinating debates to follow, especially in the added context of US debates over the US Supreme Court, and Congress, particularly some committees, meeting online and in hybrid forms. They are complex, multi-layered debates that will have consequences not only for judicial and legislative processes but also their outcomes. And we all have opinions about it. 

Photo from FT article by George Parker

Before mentioning the role of the coronavirus pandemic, I would like to make one simple point. It is generally supported from decades of research on electronic meetings focused on the costs and benefits of meeting via such options as text-only online, voice-only (phone calls or conferencing), video conferencing, or face-to-face. Obviously, if an information task involves only the transfer of information, then simply using text-based online media, like an email, is the most efficient approach and may have no consequence on the outcome. However, if the task involves negotiation, bargaining, or other interpersonal judgements, then it would be better to use media with more ‘social presence’.*** Face-to-face, in-person meetings have the highest level of social presence, other things equal, followed by video conferencing, followed by only text-based telecommunications. Arguably, any transfer of information is in some part a negotiation, such as ‘please listen’, and some in person meetings, such as a teacher speaking in a large lecture hall can have little social presence. That said, some information tasks are relatively more focused on negotiation, such as arriving at a group decision or judgement. If you are simply giving or receiving information, it is more efficient to use online media. If negotiating or making a judgement, particularly as a group, it is better to meet face to face. 

However, this last call depends on your status in the group. If you are the leader or most influential in the group, it is better (for you) to meet face-to-face, as this will enable you to best assert your authority. If you are less influential in the group meeting, it might well be better for you to meet online, as text- or voice-only such as a phone call can have a leveling effect, making it more difficult for those at a higher status to dominate the discussion. The choice of medium is complicated as it could have redistributive versus pareto-optimal implications. Whatever you decide, some might be better off and others worse off. 

With these issues in mind, the best resolution I’ve found came out of a study of that organizations that concluded it was geography that still mattered the most.**** It was most efficient to be where you need to be for face-to-face communication. For example, back office operations at a bank do not need to be in a central city because it is only important to enable those in the back office to communicate well with one another. They can be located outside of a high-rent district in the city to a more remote back office. In contrast, the top management of a bank would need to have good communication with executives at different businesses, law firms, accounting firms, and so forth, creating an argument for them to be located in the city – where face to face communication will be enabled with other executives. You should try to locate where you most need to have face-to-face communication and rely more on online media for remote communication for less critical information and communication tasks. 

Therefore, the key question is not whether to use online or face-to-face communication, but where you should be in order to facilitate face-to-face communication with the most critical people you are meeting with. Here is where the problems arise for politicians, legislators, and (possibly) judges. Should they be closer to their constituents, their colleagues, the leaders of their party, the defendant, the media, or their staff. 

The coronavirus pandemic simplified this calculus, as they were required to stay at home and use online media. As the lock downs ease, the experience with working online might lead some to wish to remain online, but the interests of most politicians, including parliamentarians and members of congress will be to be many places at once in order to work with many different kinds of actors critical to their role in politics and government. In this situation, online media will help people to be where they most need to be at any given time to meet face-to-face with the most critical groups. 

Sounds simple, but it is not. Ideally, this understanding should lead legislatures and parliaments and executives to enable their colleagues to have options. Tell them: “Be where you should to have the most important conversations you can have today – to be present in the most critical meetings.” Use online media to follow, contribute to, and otherwise participate in activities that are less critical. You might well need to be left alone to write, of example. In some respects, these issues might lie in part behind moves to ‘hybrid’ virtual legislatures, and ‘hybrid’ online teaching options, so that some activities can be moved online, and some remain face-to-face. But choices need to be more fine-grained and flexible than most hybrid models appear to be. 

I’ve glossed over many issues but hope to have moved some people away from wondering which is better: virtual or real face-to-face communication. That is not the right question. 

References

*Sebastian Payne, (2020), ‘Anger among MPs over end of ‘virtual parliament’’, Financial Times, Wednesday 3 June: 2. 

**George Parker, (2020), ‘Unrest as Johnson’s ‘Potemkin cabinet no longer takes decisions’’, Financial Times, 3 June: 

*** Social presence, and its relationship to different communication media, emerged from some terrific experiments conducted and reported by Short, J., Williams, E., and Christie, B. (1976), The Social Psychology of Telecommunications (London: John Wiley and Sons). 

****Goddard, J., and Richardson, R., (1996), ‘Why Geography Will Still Matter: What Jobs Go Where?’, pp. 197-214 in Dutton, W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 

The Chatham House Rule Should be the Exception

Can We Make the Chatham House Rule the Exception?

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May I quote you?

It is common to debate the definition and correct implementation of the Chatham House Rule. My issue is with its over-use. It should be used in exceptional cases, rather than being routinized as a norm for managing communication about meetings.

To be clear, the Chatham House Rule (singular) is: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”*

One of the central rationales of this rule was to enable more transparency by freeing governmental and other officials to speak without attribution.** Clearly, there are cases in which individuals cannot speak publicly about an issue given their position. Think about the many cases in which news sources do not wish to be identified by journalists. Similar situations arise in meetings, and it is good that The Chatham House Rule exists to use in just such occasions to promote greater transparency.

However, it is arguable that The Chatham House Rule is used in ways that do not promote transparency. For example, it is often misunderstood and used to prevent members of a meeting from conveying information provided at the meeting. Clearly, the original rule left participants ‘free to use the information’, just without identifying the source. This expansion of the Rule runs counter to the aim of the rule’s establishment.

In addition, all too often the Rule is invoked not because the content of a meeting is particularly sensitive, but because it creates a sense of tradition, and an aura of importance. It conveys the message that something important will be discussed at this meeting. However, the function of this is more in marketing a meeting rather than creating a safe setting for revealing secret, confidential, or new information.

A related rationale is that it is just ‘the way we do things’ – the tradition. In this case, there is likely to be no need for less transparency, but a case of blindly following tradition, resulting in information being inadvertently suppressed.

In many ways, the times are making The Chatham House Rule more problematic.

First, history is pushing us toward more transparency, not less. The spirit of the Rule should lead us to apply it only when necessary to open communication, such as around a sensitive issue, not to routinely regulate discussion of what was said in a meeting.

Secondly, the authenticity of information that comes out of a meeting is often enhanced by knowing more information about its source. If a new idea or piece of information is attributed to an individual, that individual can become a first source for authenticating what was said, and for follow up questions.

Thirdly, technical advances are making it less and less realistic to keep the source of information confidential. Leaks, recordings, live blogging and more are making transparency the norm of nearly every meeting. That is, it is better to assume that any meeting is public than to assume any meeting is confidential.

Over a decade ago, I once organized and chaired a meeting that included the UK’s Information Commissioner (the privacy commissioner, if you will), and it was conducted under The Chatham House Rule. At the break, I checked with my IT group about how the recording was going, as we were recording the meeting for preparing a discussion paper to follow. Lo and behold, the meeting was being Webcast! This made for a good laugh by the Commissioner and all when we reconvened, but it also reminded me that everyone should assume the default of a meeting in the digital world is that all is public rather than private.

Finally, there are better ways to handle information in today’s technical and political contexts. Personally, I usually record meetings that are about academic or applied matters, as opposed to meetings about personnel issues, for example. So if we convene a group to discuss a substantive issue, such as a digital policy issue like net neutrality, we let all participants know that presentations and discussions will be recorded. We do not promise that anything will be confidential, as it is not completely under our control, but we promise that our recording will be used primarily for writing up notes of the meeting, and that if anyone is quoted, they will be asked to approve the quote before it is distributed publicly.

Of course, when individuals request that something remains confidential, or confined to those present, then we do everything we can to ensure that confidentiality. (As with The Chatham House Rule, much relies on trust among the participants in a meeting.) But this restriction is the exception, rather than the rule. This process tends to ensure more accurate reports of meetings, enable us to quote individuals, who should get credit or attribution, and support transparency.

The Chatham House Rule was established in 1927 with Chatham House being the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. The worries at that time were more often about encouraging government officials to participate in a discussion about sensitive international concerns by assuring anonymity. Today there are still likely to be occasions when this rule could be useful in bringing people around the table, but that is likely to be exception and not the rule in the era of the Internet, distributed electronic conferencing, and live Tweeting.

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Chatham House, London

Notes

* https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule

** As noted by Chatham House: “The Chatham House Rule originated at Chatham House with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers and to encourage openness and the sharing of information. It is now used throughout the world as an aid to free discussion.” https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule

 

The Interpersonal Politics of Silence

Sitting in a large number of meetings – as academics do – I have been intrigued by the frequency of individuals remaining silent, and not expressing their views on issues, even to the point of listening to uncomfortable silences. I’ve been sensitive to this, since from my earliest memories of being a student sitting in classes, I was one of those who could not stay silent, trying to respond to questions whether or not I had a knowledgeable response. Perhaps everyone has a psychological disposition to be more comfortable remaining silent or in expressing themselves, and I’m sure this varies cross-culturally and across meetings. There are meetings when I am the only person speaking and meetings in which I cannot get a word in edgewise.

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Clearly, some business pundits, such as Kevin Eikenberry, view silence in meetings as functional and often positive, such as by giving individuals time to think. Others see silence in meetings as a consequence of the speaker or the chair – not the problem of the audience. I’ll get back to the functional value of silence below.

That said, I cannot help but think that silence in meetings is a political strategy – conscious or not. This is not my area, as I am not focused on interpersonal communication, but some cursory search suggests that very little research has been done on the interpersonal functions of silence. While under-researched, others such as Richard Johannesen (1974), have identified this as a topic in need of more systematic research – apparently to little effect.

Ambiguity. In politics, silence is often read as a lack of support. If politicians do not express their support for their leadership, for example, it is generally assumed that they are opposed, or at least not supportive. Alternatively, in many meetings and in interpersonal communication, silence is often read as a sign of deference – as if one is listening or thinking about what was said. Of course, the degree that silence could be read as supportive or oppositional suggests that it is a safe position. Others can read what they want to read in silence, but not be able to prove their case, leaving the silent in a more ambiguous position. And ambiguity is good in politics.

Time Delay. In addition, silence and the ambiguity it creates will enable individuals to take more time to decide on their response. If you can wait to express your views, you can take a more politically acceptable position.

Private Flexibility. Silence in public also permits multiple positions in private. One can tell the proponents and opponents of a particular idea that they support their position.

So this ambiguity, strategic delay, and private flexibility make silence golden in the interpersonal politics of meetings. But is it constructive for the group or institution?

Here I think the idea that every organization needs idea generators, idea killers, and idea maintainers to innovate provides with  a different take. I like this idea, and believe it could be applied to meetings as well. The problem is that those who remain silent are neither generating ideas, killing ideas, or maintaining them. This is okay if silence gives space to those who generate, kill, or maintain new ideas. But if too many remain silent, this could be dysfunctional for the meeting, and the organization.

Others have argued a stronger case against silence, with Leslie A. Perlow and Stephanie Williams suggesting that silence could be killing companies, finding that:

“But it is time to take the gilt off silence. Our research shows that silence is not only ubiquitous and expected in organizations but extremely costly to both the firm and the individual. Our interviews with senior executives and employees in organizations ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations to government bureaucracies reveal that silence can exact a high psychological price on individuals, generating feelings of humiliation, pernicious anger, resentment, and the like that, if unexpressed, contaminate every interaction, shut down creativity, and undermine productivity.”

My sense is that they are right to challenge conventional wisdom on the value of silence. Silence might well be politically strategic for individuals, but potentially not strategic for group or organizational innovation. So if you want to be politically safe, and organizationally conservative, if not deadly, then sit on your hands and hold your tongue.

Reference

Johannesen, Richard L. (1974), ‘The Functions of Silence: A Plea for Communication Research’, Western Speech, 38 (1): http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10570317409373806?needAccess=true

Perlow, Leslie A., and Williams, Stephanie (2003), ‘Is Silence Killing Your Company?‘, Harvard Business Review, May.

What Meetings Should Academics Avoid?

Colleagues will tell you not to waste your time blogging, or spending too much time doing this or that, but few ever tell you not to waste your time in meetings. In fact, they ask you to come to meetings all the time, and seldom if ever advise you not to attend a meeting, however problematic the topic or the expected likelihood of a meaningful discussion. Seeing my own colleagues on the meeting treadmill, largely of their own making, I thought I should give some unsolicited advice to the blogosphere of academics who need to have some framework for deciding what meetings to avoid.

So here are my preliminary thoughts on how to think about (avoiding) meetings that are unnecessary or otherwise a waste of time for academics on the publish, have impact, and perish road to promotion. But there are also some general rules:

  1. You can always say ‘no’ to being on a committee or taking on an administrative assignment. No competent administrator who understands scholarship would fault you.
  1. Leave as much governance and administration as possible to senior faculty, who have been promoted.
  1. Teaching trumps research, when teaching loads are reasonable. Research trumps administration and administrative meetings.
  1. Good citizenship is important, but citizenship does not overcome weak teaching or research.

That said, here is a framework to help you think about what meetings you might avoid:

 

Type of Meeting
Administrative Training Networking Research
Unavoidable, unless Conflicting with Higher Priority, e.g., field research, teaching Faculty Meetings; Review with Head of Unit; Required (increasing in number) Social Events for Colleagues; Introducing Yourself or Your Work to Colleagues Presentations or Evaluations of your Work; Meet to Solve a Problem or Assign Work
Avoidable, but Go Retreats, Away Days, Meetings You Call, Meetings that could talk about you or your work Topic or Skill or Procedure you Want to Learn Coffee or tea with a colleague; Meal or drinks with 2-5 colleagues Seminars, Lectures, Roundtables, Coordination of Research Projects
Should or Must Avoid Long Faculty Meetings; Routine Meetings w/o Important Items; Large Meetings Efforts of Administrators to Save Their Time; Cover Their Backside Meeting to Impress Colleagues; Talk about Other Colleagues Top Down Efforts to Promote Collaboration

I’m sure that many will disagree with my advice, or have better ideas or frameworks, so I’d like to hear them. Meeting overload is a real problem.