Greetings, all. Hope life is treating you well. Just back from another stimulating conference so lots of ideas buzzing around my head. One thing that is particularly occupying my mind, and you’ll be glad that I’ve decided to share this with you today, is the issue of virtual communication. This essentially means email and telephoning, although there are other aspects such as communicating via intranets / extranets, management of shared document databases etc. During the conference I went to, which looked mainly at the challenges facing international teams, there seemed to be a shared assumption that virtual communication was a poor cousin of face-to-face. And the fact that people working in international teams had to communicate virtually became a de facto explanation (or at least one important explanation) of why these teams seemed to underperform regularly.
But I’m not so sure. I think there are real advantages to communicating virtually and we can look at these in a minute. Isn’t it more the way the medium is used, not so much the medium itself, that’s the issue. As trainers of English for international communication, therefore, we may have to get involved in teaching ways to use the virtual channel, virtual English communication skills whatever these may be. Interesting, huh?
But let’s start with advantages of communicating virtually, and there are a surprisingly high number.
· Saves on travel costs e.g. conference calls over face-to-face meetings
· Saves time with reduced travel, good for working efficiency and work-life balance
· Brings groups of people together from all over the world who could not normally communicate
· Allows you (email) to manage your time and communicate what you want to when you want to rather than having someone drop into the office and interrupt you
· Enables (email again) higher quality communication with all the facts clearly presented in black and white without emotion in an email - at least potentially
· Increase communication flow and supports social networking and knowledge management in organisations e.g. company blogs and wikis
· Reduces wasted time (people tend to digress and interrupt less in telephone conferences) in meetings
And so on. Sure, we can’t see email and telephoning as an alternative to face-to-face communication. It’s a complement. But it’s a virtual complement with plenty of advantages – just read through the above – if we have the virtual skills. And that’s where we step in … to teach virtual English communication skills.
So, are virtual communication skills any different from the kinds of language and communication skills we typically teach in the classroom. I’m not sure yet but I’d like to start the discussion. I think I can identify a few but I’d really like to see if we can collectively build up a little checklist of 10 to start building lessons around. And I’m going to focus initially on emailing as, in many ways, it’s the most virtual medium in the sense of least interactivity. So here goes ... I’ll kick things off!Virtual communication skill #1
Perhaps the first art of virtual communication is choosing which messages to place in which medium. Put bluntly – should I email, should I telephone or should I meet face to face? The more complex the message, the greater interactivity required (either in terms of clarification, discussion or simply engagement) then the decision should be to go less virtual. How can we train this? Well, simply ask your students to print their last ten sent emails and analyse how appropriate it was to send this message via email or whether another channel or combination of channels could have been used. Check out the replies to these emails to see how high the levels of understanding and acceptance are of the original message, and whether time-wasting clarifications and arguments have been generated.Virtual communication skill #2
Real-time communication allows opportunities for interruption if you see someone has misunderstood and begins to discuss something irrelevant. Interruption is not a possibility with email so we have to work harder in our original messaging to be more explicit. We probably need to give more background information to support our arguments. We may need to explicitly say what we are not saying – to counter possible interpretations. And we may need to guide the responses of our correspondent by giving them three options to reply – do you think this, this or this? Hopefully, they don’t go off on a tangent but ... you never know.
So – that’s two skills so far: choosing the moment to go virtual and then building clear messages which control how people read and respond to avoid time wasting.
But I don’t know. What do you think? Are there another 8 virtual skills covering email to telephoning? Are there virtual skills at all? Interested to hear your thoughts!
BOB DIGNEN is a director of York Associates. He specialises in intercultural skills programmes and international team seminars which he delivers to clients in Germany, Switzerland, Iceland and Sweden. He is accredited to use The International Profiler (an intercultural profiling tool) and is also an advanced practitioner of TMP (Team Management Profile – an international team profiling tool). As an author, he worked on English365 for Cambridge University Press and has written 50 Ways to Improve your International Presentation Skills. He is also co-author of Developing People Internationally, a multimedia international team training resource.