Insights (Essays)

Insights (Essays) August 2021

Keeping It Personal: In-Person Connection for Effective Knowledge Sharing in a Virtual World

Giovanni Salas

Salas 

Now that a great number of people in the US and Canada have been vaccinated against COVID-19, organizations find themselves at a defining moment. The choices they make regarding if, when and how to bring their employees back to physical offices will have implications for how well they are able to work together to remain innovative and competitive.  

The pandemic has forced many companies to operate virtually and pushed employers and employees to adapt, rather quickly, to working remotely. However, it is one thing to “have to work virtually” and another to “work virtually by design”. Over the last year and a half, we have had to rely on video-conferencing systems to communicate and share information with co-workers, which might have tempted us to believe that everything can now be done virtually. However, this technology-centered approach will result in devaluing the knowledge and expertise that employees acquire by working face to face with each other. When people work together in person, they are invariably involved in constant observation and, hence, are able to adapt to thousands of unspoken rules and fundamental – yet, often, indescribable – actions that are unlikely, if not impossible, to be captured and transmitted by video-conferencing programs.

One of our most remarkable characteristics as human beings is our capacity for social cooperation. Anthropologists and evolutionary theorists argue that humans first began to dominate the planet by collaborating in unique ways for day-to-day survival, which, in turn, led to the creation of long-lasting cultural groups. In other words, Homo sapiens prevailed not because of their capacity to think and reason individually but because of their ability to think socially and learn from and cooperate with others. This has shaped the way we communicate, learn and live. Social interactions have historically been in person; as a result, humans have developed remarkable abilities to communicate not only through a shared language, but also through body movements, facial expressions, changes in tone of voice, silences, etc. Our brains have evolved to learn from and mirror the people around us. We hone our skills by observing, mimicking, practising and getting feedback from others. Thus, ultimately, we model our speech and behaviour on the actions of others.

Storytelling has been used for thousands of years by human societies as a way to introduce newcomers to their social rules. Good leaders know the power of a good story. Organizations, knowingly or unknowingly, rely on stories to share the culture and processes of their operations. Consider the wealth of information that is communicated through the stories being told by veteran employees. It is not only the content of the stories but the way they are told with all the emotions and bodily gestures that accompany the retelling, as well as the audience’s reactions, that matter. These are all incredibly data-rich components that we learn from. We live in a world of physical experiences in which the lived-in experience is always more impactful than what words can describe. Experiences cannot merely be rendered into words that are then shared virtually through online workspaces because language, by itself, is a deficient conduit for the adequate communicability of know-how. Consider how something as simple as engaging in eye contact is not possible with the current computer cameras.

The use of digital communication is helping many organizations survive the COVID-19 pandemic by facilitating working from home. However, let us not fall into a false sense of thinking that these forms of technologies can replace in-person learning and communication in our post-pandemic future. As the restrictions for social distancing start to ease off, we need to consider that knowledge creation and innovation require more than just technological solutions. They are personal, social and cultural endeavours that require us to be with others in person. The key for organizations is going to be finding the right balance between working virtually and in person. Technology should support and not replace human-to-human interactions.

About the Author(s)

Giovanni Salas, PhD, is a researcher in knowledge sharing and the acquisition of personal knowledge.

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