Monday, 29 July 2013

Technology can connect us


One of the things that bugs me in my work is the assumption that often seems to be made that I work in London. This is most commonly made by people who work in London but that isn't always the case. 

It bugs me primarily because people seem to assume that anyone really serious about being in business or working with civil society is based in the capital. "You're not based in London? Why on earth not?" seems to be the subconscious thought that flies through their heads when I tell them I am based in Grantham, Lincolnshire. I've even experienced people who are surprised that I have clients who are not based in the capital

It also bugs me because people make the assumption that I can go to their office for a short meeting like its just popping down the road. In reality, it is often quicker for me to get to some parts of London than it is for some Londoners - Kings Cross is less than ninety minutes from my house but when I commuted and worked there full time some of my colleagues took longer to get in from other parts of the city. Yet it isn't cheap. At short notice it can cost me £100+ to get to the capital. Even buying a ticket in advance usually costs about £50 plus £11 for parking. And then there is the time lost, usually at least half a day to attend just a one hour meeting.

It also bugs me because it suggests a London centric way of looking at the world - "If you are not prepared to come to the city then we are not prepared to work with you". I can understand that if a potential client is based in London but if it's an infrastructure body seeking to engage with stakeholders then they should be getting out into the rest of the country not expecting us to go to them.

Of course, in the modern world we can harness technology to help break down this London / rest of the country divide. A telephone meeting can take place. Even better a Skype call so we can see each other. Perhaps something like GoToMeeting can be used which enables telephone and video conferencing without the premium rate telephone costs that fund the apparently free alternatives. Google Plus hangouts can be used too - I particularly like Voluntary Arts England's use of these. And most of these technologies don't cost much or anything at all.

I have a number of strong friendships and professional working relationships that I maintain via technology, connecting with people around the globe. I work with people I have never even met using technology, for example as part of the organising committee for International Volunteer Managers Day whose members come from the UK (me), USA, Australia and New Zealand. Only last month when I was in the States I met about half a dozen people for the first time yet I had know them for years just via email. It was like meeting old friends - because I was!

So are we harnessing the potential of technology in the voluntary and volunteering sectors to break down these divides of distance? Yes and no.

On the no front, I was recently contacted by someone based in London who was reaching out to their organisation's network of consultants, of which I am one. They wanted to arrange meetings to develop closer working relationships. I suggested dates I was in London. They didn't suit this person. I explained that I wasn't currently planning to be in London on any other dates before the end of 2013 so perhaps a Skype call would be a good way forward. They responded by indicating that it had to be face-to-face (i.e. physically present in person) if it was to achieve the aim of a closer working relationship. I had to go to them at my cost or the meeting wasn't happening. So, the organisation concerned seems to be happy to limit themselves to only having close working relationships with their consultants who are within cheap and easy reach of London. What potential will they miss out on from those of us based further afield, with experience of working in the vast majority of the civil society world that does not inhabit London?

On the yes front, look at Thoughtful Thursdays. An initiative originally born from Warrington Voluntary Action's work during the European Year of Volunteering 2011, Thoughtful Thursday's (or #ttvolmgrs in Twitter speak) connects volunteer managers across the UK (indeed now across the globe) in a weekly discussion on a topical theme related to leading and managing volunteers and volunteer programmes. Friendships have been built, strong work connections developed and offline initiatives born through a network based on technology that was developed in a part of the UK where much of the innovation in volunteering seems to be happening, the North West, specifically in and around Manchester - not London.

So, to be clear, I don't live in London. I don't always work in London. I can't always come to London. But that doesn't mean I can't develop a good working relationship with people there, or anywhere else for that matter. If we embrace technology and use it intelligently we can build strong working relationships with colleagues in our country and around the world. Perhaps it is time for more of us working in civil society to realise this.

What do you think?

How have you used technology to break down barriers of distance?

Have you develop strong working relationship with people online rather than face-to-face in person?

What lessons do you think we can all learn to make our work more effective?

I'd lvoe to hear your thoughts and ideas.

8 comments:

  1. Rob, this is a fantastic and thoughtful post, and one that I agree wholeheartedly with even though I am based in London. Technology has moved on considerably and can be used not just for pleasure but for work too. I keep in touch with US colleaues through email and Skype and in my spare time I run an online magazine with writers across the country. I use a combination of a private Facebook group for all the writers to connect and chat and to get out important messages, and monthly Google Hangouts so that we get to see each other and chat. It works really well, and no one feels like they are missing out. In fact the magazine is gaining by having all these volunteer writers from across the UK without that Londoncentric view of things!

    Interesting when I was part of the Google lobal Impact Challenge, despite it being a UK fund, it was run from their US office. Sure, the early/late calls were inconvenient at times but it worked. A lesson for us all - we should be breaking down those fake walls and working globally!

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  2. As I read through your blog, I was nodding and saying, 'yes', as so much chimes with my experience of doing a national job from my home in West Yorkshire. However, I recently took my geographic isolation to an even higher level by breaking my neck and thus being unable to travel to the capital at all. Over the past 9 weeks, I've had to find other ways of engaging with colleagues and contacts and I'm determined to keep it up permanently. The sky hasn't fallen in. I've joined meetings by telephone and listened to webinars. If I had better technology, I think I could halve the number of times I get up at 5.45 and arrive home exhausted at 8pm. I'm off to make my request ......



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  3. I am so sick and tired of this whole country's attitude to technology. Our leaders happily spend billions constructing high speed train lines or repairing potholed roads, whilst millions struggle every morning and evening in the never ending rush hour to get to and from a desk in a room with a computer. Why we haven't come to our collective sense and realised that the biggest potential of technology is to reduce all this wasted time, reduce all this energy use and give us all a decent work/life balance. What are we, Victorians?

    Yes, I agree wholeheartedly and the added benefit of decent high speed broadband is that when a meeting turns out to be a waste of time (far too often) at least people won't have spent hours and dosh getting to and from it!

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  4. Well im responding to this post via my mobile, having been alerted to your new post via Twitter.
    Today I have sent out membership invites to West Midlands VC partners to renew or join our peer support network where we meet quarterly and are proposing to try a Google Hangout meeting asap.
    So I hope i'm moving in the right direction where technology is concerned..but you're right in the assumptions that we should all be city based. To be honest being London centric is equalled by as many who believe Manchester or Birmingham is the centre of all. I'm happy to travel wherever when resources and time allow , but a whole or half day of time away from your desk or delivery for an hour meeting, has got to be considered essential when working in a sector where the resources are now squeezed unrealistically. If technology enables us to work differently and efficiently then we should of course embrace such options , but in reality, the speed of the broadband in the Staffordshire Moorlands means I'll probably be passing you by on a train station platform pretty soon...

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  5. I'm posting this on behalf of Dan Haskell who kindly commented on my blog and then blogger went all screwy when I approved the post and deleted it instead. Sorry Dan.

    >>>>>

    Great blog as ever Rob.

    I am particularly interested in encouraging our volunteers and staff to tailor their communication methods and technology to the needs of the individual, rather than taking a one size fits all approach.

    We've had some good success in building volunteer capacity on our social media platforms, without ever having met the majority of people who undertake this for us.

    Likewise, we have promoted conference calling to our volunteer committees to help them break the cycle of only communicating via quarterly meetings, and this is helping some of them to achieve more than previously.

    Conversely, we set up a LinkedIn group to encourage all those volunteers we have who are busy, senior professionals to share their experiences in a forum where they seemed to be naturally gravitating anyway - however it never really took off and the feedback was that the group just got lost in the mire of updates they were already seeing. I'm still looking for ideas on this one!

    Finally, I do seem to spend quite a lot of time reminding people that one phone call could resolve the issue they have spent half a dozen e-mails unsuccessfully trying to unpick. As useful as some of the modern methods are, they can be quite instrumental at exacerbating problems if used at the wrong time.

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  6. Technology is part of my life and I communicate with my family and friends even if I'm living in other country. One of the best thing is that I'm using a modern technology for my work and it really helps me a lot and make my life easier.

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  7. Hi from one of your long-time Internet-based colleagues and friends in the U.S., Rob! As we've said so often, it's hard to imagine anyone thinking that long-distance relationships fostered mainly online are not true friendships. Bah, humbug! Remember when people only had paper, pens, and hand-delivered mail as their form of communication? Yet they, too, developed lifelong connections. Today's technology allows for immediate and often FREE global communication in ways that seemed like science fiction a decade ago. As we all know, it's not the medium...it's the message. If the desire to connect is genuine, the technology is a fantastic tool.

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  8. Hi from one of your long-time Internet-based colleagues and friends in the U.S., Rob! As we've said so often, it's hard to imagine anyone thinking that long-distance relationships fostered mainly online are not true friendships. Bah, humbug! Remember when people only had paper, pens, and hand-delivered mail as their form of communication? Yet they, too, developed lifelong connections. Today's technology allows for immediate and often FREE global communication in ways that seemed like science fiction a decade ago. As we all know, it's not the medium...it's the message. If the desire to connect is genuine, the technology is a fantastic tool.

    ReplyDelete