The White Board Reality


Recently, Ron Miller wrote a nice little article explaining that there is no need for collaboration to be done in the same room anymore. He says, based off of a tweet of mine, that those that think that face-to-face interaction is needed are living in a White Board Fallacy.

Well, I hate to break it to Ron but he’s fallen in love with marketing hype and his lower complexity of collaboration. I think Ron is a great guy and a wonderful writer, but his personal experience and collection of anecdotes only goes so far.

Cold Shower of Reality

Ron is a writer. He works on articles and interviews people. This is readily done via Skype. When editing an article, or having one edited, even email works for this level with no problem.

But collaboration isn’t always so easy.

First there is trust. The more complex the concepts or problems being worked upon, the more trust is required between the collaborators. While this trust can be built online, it is always made stronger, and faster, when built with in-person interactions. If a strong level of trust exists prior to the collaborative effort, it is easy to start as there is a stronger rapport between the collaborators.

When that trust isn’t there, in-person meetings are always better. It isn’t the physical presence, but the extra communication cues that go into meeting face-to-face.

I have a consulting engagement about to kick off and we are having the kick-off meeting together in AIIM’s Silver Spring office. I might not see the consultants again for the duration of the engagement but we will have the foundation established in that meeting to build our success upon.

Limited Real Estate

When two people meet via Skype, things are simple. If they need to collaborate on authoring something, it is simple.

Throw in more people, the video demands start to become problematic. It isn’t just bandwidth, but real estate on the screen. Some tools solve this by switching the video feed to the current speaker. This quickly removes the ability to gauge the reactions of other participants to what is being discussed.

AIIM is mostly a virtual workforce. While we do get together in the office on a regular basis, many days are spent in our own personal workspaces. Meetings with 1-3 other people isn’t a problem.  Add more and soon the collection of video images becomes so small as to be almost useless.

And then we have the hard decisions.

Enter the White Board

Life isn’t simple. Whether in consulting or at AIIM, issues arise that need considerable thought and attention. I’m not talking about the departure of a key employee or an acquisition. I’m talking the design of a system, strategy for putting together a winning proposal, or determining how to rework an offering to increase revenue.

Brainstorming that evolves into solution building.

Let me give you a real example here at AIIM. Last fall, when we had selected our new Association Management System (AMs), we had to decide how to integrate it with our marketing automation system. We had an existing process but it was manual and incomplete. We needed to map out how this new process would work.

We gathered in our large conference room and proceeded to draw our current process. From there, we started making changes based upon future capabilities. There was a lot of testing of ideas and changing the diagrams as we went. We even had a few side diagrams that we used to work through some important related concepts.

It wasn’t a simple task, but it was easy to accomplish. Why? Because we were together.

As someone talked, it was easy to see if people were comprehending the idea from their expressions and body language. Anyone could get up and make changes or start a separate design on another location.

Shoot, just pointing being able to use our hands to illustrate the concepts, giving the white board a 3rd dimension, was very useful.

I’ve done these types of collaboration sessions when people were either all dispersed or the group was in two locations. The goal can be reached but it always takes longer. It also almost always requires more time spent in follow-up.

And that is my point to Ron. It isn’t that things can’t be accomplished with current business tools to facilitate remote collaboration. My point is that work is MORE EFFICIENT when the collaborators are all together.

It isn’t limited to large group. I can state for a fact that my development team is more productive when they are all in the office together. While they could make better use of their tools to improve remote collaboration, the spontaneous conversation or overheard comment made while trying discuss something with a staff member is valuable.

I’ve used all of the affordable tools that Ron mentioned in his post (not the massive Foresee Table). They are all very useful and for most discussions they are far preferable to having to force everyone to get together.

But as the problem grows more complex and the number of participants grows, the limits of the tools are hi. Eventually it reaches a point that it is just easier to schedule Conference Room A.

And that is from someone that has an hour drive to get there.

[Edit: Ron wrote a later article that I missed where he conceded that there are times where it does make sense. It is a good read. Would like to point out that being online makes the tendencies for people to dominate a discussion or check email worse.]

2 thoughts on “The White Board Reality

  1. Steve says:

    You feel my pain. My small company was acquired by a huge company. Most people now work from home. Consequently, brainstorming, efficient communication, trust etc. are a struggle and not what they should be.

    Like this

  2. Great post….I could NOT agree more. There is absolutely nothing that beats a face to face sit down. My real world example is my current line of business working to keep our Customer Support and Development teams physically located in the same building…on the same floor even. This has proven to be a much better environment for collaborating on tough customer issues than we witness with other businesses within our large company where the Support and Development teams may be, literally, half way around the world from each other. Yes, there’s remote video and remote log-in’s to systems and every other collaborative tool under the sun. But, nothing beats putting the people needed to solve a problem in the same room together.

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