26 Feb

The debate over Brexit – does distance matter?

Europe for blog

The debate concerning Brexit, whether Britain should leave the EU, has well and truly begun. The Financial Times has published a short debate over the issue, between the Labour politican Peter Mandelson and Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan. During the debate, Daniel Hannan, arguing for Brexit, says that geographical proximity has never mattered less. There is, therefore, no reason why Britain should prioritise trading with those closest i.e. Europe; instead Britain should focus on trading with the rest of the world. With open global markets, rapid transportation and high speed communications, geography simply doesn’t matter that much anymore.

It might be true that geographical proximity has never mattered less but it is not the case that geographical proximity is unimportant. A recent study on ‘The Impact of Venture Capital Monitoring‘ shows just this. The authors show that venture capitalists’ “on-site involvement with their portfolio companies leads to an increase in both innovation and the likelihood of a successful exit”. Specifically, direct flights increase the interaction that venture capitalists have with their portfolio companies and management, helping them to better understand the companies’ activities.

So regular face to face communication between venture capitalists and their portfolio companies led to increased innovation. In an earlier blog we focused on cluster initiatives to show the link between face to face communication and innovation. The important point there, as in the case of the venture capitalists, is that the innovation is a result of the greater communication possible in face to face encounters.

The fact that direct flights increase interaction is clearly because of the reduced time it takes. It is also the case that the closer two countries are, the shorter the flight between the two. Therefore, geographical proximity is not irrelevant.

While open global markets, rapid transportation and high speed communications mean that it is easy to do business with anyone in the world, it is not true that physical distance is irrelevant or unimportant. Distance is still important because face to face communication is so important. Physical encounters lead to greater connectedness; high levels of directness lead to good quality communication. Whatever one’s views about Brexit, physical proximity still matters, because physical proximity affects relational proximity.

Joshua Hemmings works for the Relational Thinking Network in marketing and communications.

Image: Blank_map_of_Europe_(polar_stereographic_projection)
_cropped.svg: Ssolbergjderivative work: Dbachmann (talk) – Blank_map_of_Europe_(polar_stereographic_projection)
_cropped.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14871393

12 Oct

Watch: Susan Pinker on why relationships matter

Relational Schools Book Launch & Premier - 17th September 2015

The Relational Thinking International Conference last month provided a great opportunity for leaders in business, the non-profit and public services sector to come together to explore the concept of Relational Thinking in their particular fields. On 17th September, teachers, leaders and education policy makers gathered for the launch of the film and book “The Relational Teacher”. We were honoured to have Susan Pinker, international best-selling author of The Village Effect, come from Canada to speak. She was passionate, humorous, engaging and persuasive as she spoke about the importance of face-to-face interaction for education, health and life.

Photography: Julian Claxton

Buy The Relational Teacher here.

Buy The Village Effect here.

 

05 Jun

Location, Location, Location: Does Where We Work Matter?

Silicon valley

Does location matter in business? Is physical proximity an obsolete concept in today’s technologically advance world? Through emails, phone calls or Skype, we can instantly contact people who live on the other side of the world. Through the internet we have access to almost unlimited information and we can easily share information and resources with our colleagues through email. If I need to get the advice of a colleague who is on the other side of the world, all I need to do is pick up the phone at an appropriate time.

Yet physical location matters hugely. Organisational clusters, the phenomenon whereby firms from the same industry gather together in close proximity, is a perfect example of this. Michael Porter, who is Professor at the Harvard Business School’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness and has been studying organisational clusters for some decades writes

“location should no longer be a source of competitive advantage. Open global markets, rapid transportation, and high speed communications should allow any company to source anything from any place at any time. But in practice, location remains central to competition.” (Porter, 1998)

A good example of this is the Silicon Valley, to where, in the 1990s, huge numbers of tech companies began moving. This geographic concentration of similar businesses increases productivity with which they can compete. There are a number of reasons for this, such as access to labour and suppliers. However, one of the most important reasons is the directness in relationships that geographical proximity brings. Despite all the many advantages that technology has brought, we need physical encounters.

This is because much of the most valuable information is obtained not electronically but from face-to-face meetings. Informal learning, acquisition of know-how, and building trust require the face-to-face contacts that occur through social, professional or trade, and business situations.

When we meet someone face to face, communication is enhanced, as facial expression, tone of voice, dress and the actual words used all add to what is communicated. Without this, opportunities can be missed. Furthermore, we base conscious and unconscious judgements about traits such as likeability, trustworthiness and competence on people’s faces. In fact, one study has found that physicians spent more time looking at diagnostic scans when they were accompanied with the photograph of the patient. It is suggested that this picture is a reminder that there is a real person behind the scans, which leads to greater ethical commitment (Turner & Hadas-Halpern, 2008).

If organisations are located close to one another, the number of meetings is also increased. Workers can much more easily speak to those who work around them or pop their head into their colleague’s office next door than call someone on the phone. It is also often in casual meetings, over coffee, or by the water-cooler, where important information is shared. In areas with organisational clusters, workers often end up living in the same neighbourhoods, where they are much more likely to meet each other outside of work, for example in pubs and bars. This deepens the relationship, builds trust and will increase the amount of information sharing there is.

Being together in the same place, at the same time also reinforces belonging in groups and communicates worth and importance. People who work away from rest of their team can quickly and easily feel isolated.

Physical encounters lead to greater connectedness. High levels of directness lead to good quality communication. This is why location is still a source of competitive advantage, even though in theory, in an era of global competition, rapid transport and high speed telecommunications, it shouldn’t be. It explains why different organisations in the same industry cluster together and the large amounts of money spent by companies in getting their staff together for their annual conference. It should encourage us all to make time for face to face meetings and think about how we can encourage directness in our organisations and communities.

References

M. Porter, ‘Clusters and the New Economics of Competition’, Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 1998, p77.

Turner and Hadas-Halpern ‘The Effects of Including a Patient’s Photograph to the Radiographic Examination’, Radiological Society of North America 2008 Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting, February 18 – February 20, 2008.

 

06 Feb

Relational Living (5): Customer Relationships

Customer Service

At work today we were running through a virtual version of Forum‘s program, Achieving Service Excellence, on Adobe Connect Pro. Forum was a pioneer in “customer service” and organizations still come to us because our deep experience and expertise in the customer experience. For years ASE (and its companion, Managing Service Excellence) has helped fancy ice-cream stores, banks, hotels, gas stations and more improve customer satisfaction, retention and spend. A center-piece of ASE is a simple but powerful ‘customer interaction cycle’. And the model presumes you’re going to see the customer again.

Relational Proximity Dimension #2 is Continuity or Time: our relationship is formed and strengthened by the amount, frequency and span of time we are together. ‘Together’ is a function of directness (Dimension #1), so even if you only have an online relationship with someone Continuity will likely still strengthen the relationship.

I’d argue that if we meet once, we don’t really have a relationship. Not that I would approach you like that, especially if I’m a customer service representative. If I meet you once, but expect to meet you again, and you expect to meet me again, then suddenly it’s as though something is at stake, so trust is required and therefore a relationship is established. You can see how the expectation of a future meeting might change how we treat someone.

Two sets of vendor-client relationships may have met exactly the same number of times but because one set has an expectation of a future there is inevitably more depth and seriousness to the relationship. Historical perspective works the same way; having a sense of common history together means you can think and feel and say, “That was us, you and me! We did that. We went through that together!”.

Or, of course, you could look back and say “you keep screwing me over!”. Continuity, like the other dimensions, is a necessary basis of a good relationship but doesn’t guarantee it.

Whether with a customer or a friend, try recalling your history together, and discuss plans for the short or long-term future. Then actually start meeting regularly! See how that changes your sense of the health and vitality of the relationship.

23 Jan

Relational Living (3): Neuroscience

neurons

It turns out, according to neuroscience research gathered together in David Rock’s popular book, Your Brain at Work, that our brains are wired for social connection.

No WAY!?

I hear you thinking. Sorry for the sarcasm. But just writing that first sentence made me realize how ‘duh!’ it is that the brain would be wired in such a way that matches how we experience life. Anyway, here’s a tidbit of the neuroscience (social cognitive neuroscience, to be precise) that appears to support “Directness”. And it’s all based on recent (since 1995) discoveries of “mirror neurons”.

Relational Proximity Dimension #1 is “Directness” or “Touch”. My relationship with someone is better and healthier the less mediated it is. It can be mediated by technology or other people: these reduce our ability to communicate fully. It can also be mediated, even when face to face, by dishonesty and fakeness: there’s a real me and a real you, any fronts we put up reduces directness.

It’s a pretty cool discovery actually (despite my ‘duh!’ comment). Mirror neurons, scattered throughout the brain, light up when they observe “intentional action”. That is, they won’t light up if they see random acts, but if they discern intent behind the action, the same neurons fire in their brains as though they themselves were doing it. (Effects of commercials on children, anyone?). The powerful limbic system that triggers a response to threats or rewards obviously kicks in once the intent has been discerned. Here’s the explanation from Christian Keysers, a leading mirror neuron research based in Holland:

“What happens is that when we witness another’s facial expressions, we activate the same in our own motor cortex, but we also transmit this information to the insula, involved in our emotions. When I see your facial expression, I get the movement of your face, which drives the same motor response on my face, so a smile gets a smile. The motor resonance is also sent on to your own emotional centers, so you share the emotion of the person in front of you.” (p160)

Here are a couple of other quotes from the book that seem to support the idea that ‘directness’ is an important factor in building good relationships:

“The more social cures that are stripped out of communication, the greater the likelihood that the intent will be misread. “The more we can see each other, the better we can match emotional states”. (P160)

Collaboration with people you don’t know well is a threat for the brain. Perhaps, after millions of years living in small groups, the automatic response to strangers is “don’t trust them”. (p162)

An abundance of social cues makes people connect more richly, perhaps in challenging ways at times. For example, when there is an abundance of social cues, emotional information can travel swiftly between people in a type of contagion.” (p161)

And now a few application thoughts/questions (some mine, some from the book):

1) Workplace learning. What learning performance is lost with online training? Do virtual worlds provide a close enough approximation to real-life that our brains might learn social behaviors from avatars? Is there an optimum amount of time a team needs to gather face to face to be most effective? (I’ve misplaced a piece of research MIT did on that, something to do with a ‘pulse’ (gathering, moving away to research, coming back again, pulse-like).

2) Management. Think that your attitude or stress-level has no effect on your workers? Their brains can’t help but be affected by you.

3) Communication. Precisely because we don’t want to discern another person’s reaction (and therefore trigger a reaction of our own), we resort to sending emails, or doing nothing, rather than face them.

4) Autism spectrum. It appears that mirror neurons show damage in people with autism. It also appears that therein lies a clue to a better response/treatment.

In the series Relational Living, Simon Fowler explores what Relational Thinking means in our day-to-day lives. The articles appeared earlier on his personal blog and are republished with his permission. The first two in this series were published on 9 and 16 January.