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). 

Managing the Shift to Next Generation Television

Columbia University’s Professor Eli Noam was in Oxford yesterday, 17 October 2019, speaking at Green Templeton College about two of his most recent books, entitled ‘Managing Media and Digital Organizations’ and ‘Digital and Media Management’: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783319712871. The title of his talk was ‘Does Digital Management Exist? Challenges for the Next Generation of TV’. Several departments collaborated with Green Templeton College in supporting this event, including the Oxford Internet Institute, Saïd Business School, the Blavatnik School of Government, and Voices from Oxford

Green Templeton College Lecture Hall

Professor Noam has focused attention on what seems like a benign and economically rational technical shift from linear TV to online video. Most people have some experience with streaming video services, for example. But the longer term prospects of this shift could be major (we haven’t seen anything yet) and have serious social implications that drive regulatory change, and also challenge those charged with managing the media. What is the next generation of digital television? Can it be managed? Are the principles of business management applicable to new digital organizations? 

The Principal of Green Templeton College, Professor Denise Lievesley opened the session and introduced the speaker, and two discussants: Professor Mari Sako, from the Saïd Business School, and Damian Tambini, from the Department of Media and Communication at LSE, and a former director of Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP). Following Eli Noam’s overview of several of the key themes developed in his books, and the responses of the discussants, the speakers fielded a strong set of questions from other participants. Overall, the talk and discussion focused less on the management issues, and more on the potential social implications of this shift and the concerns they raised. 

Roland Rosner, Eli Noam, Bill Dutton, Mari Sako, Damian Tambini

The social implications are wide ranging, including a shift towards more individualized, active, emersive, and global media. There will be some of the ‘same old same old’, but also ‘much more’ that brings many perspectives on the future of television into households. The concerns raised by these shifts include threats to privacy and security to even shorter attention spans – can real life compete with sensational emersion in online video? Perhaps the central concern of the discussion focused around media concentration, and not only in cloud services, such as offered by the big tech companies, but also in national infrastructures, content, and devices. 

This led to a discussion of the policy implications arising from such concerns, particularly in the aftermath of 2016 elections, mainly around the efforts to introduce governmental regulation of the global online companies and governmental pressures on platforms to censor their own content. This surfaced some debate over the cross-national and regional differences in approaches to freedom of expression and media regulation. While there were differences of opinion on the need and nature of greater regulation, there did seem to be little disagreement with Eli’s argument that many academics seem to have moved from being cheerleaders to fear mongering, when we should all seek to be ‘thought leaders’ in this space, given that academics should have the independence from government and the media, and an understanding informed by systematic research versus conventional wisdom across the world. 

Eli Noam presenting his lecture on Digital Media Management

Eli is one of the world’s leading scholars on digital media and management, and his latest books demonstrate his command of this area. One of the speakers referred to his latest tome as an MBA in a box. The text has a version for undergraduate and graduate courses, but every serious university library should have them in their collection. 

Bill and Eli with Susanne, a former Columbia Un student of Eli’s, now at the OII and Green Templeton College, holding Eli’s new books

Notes: 

Eli Noam has been Professor of Economics and Finance at the Columbia Business School since 1976 and its Garrett Professor of Public Policy and Business Responsibility. He has been the Director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, and one of the key advisors to the Oxford Internet Institute, having served on its Advisory Board since its founding in 2001 through the Institute’s first decade. 

His new books on digital media and organizations have been praised by a range of digital and media luminaries, from Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, to the former CEO of Time Warner, Gerald Levin and former CTO of HBO, Robert Zitter. 

An interview with Eli Noam will be available soon via Voices from Oxford.