[tweetmeme] In my day-to-day work
I conduct a lot of interviews with the customers and potential customers of organizations that sell education and training. You know, trade and professional associations, training firms, etc. The usual aim of these interviews is to gain insight into how and whether the organization might broaden its reach online. Inevitably, at some point in an interview, a large percentage of the interviewees will say something along the lines of “Well, learning online is fine, but it can’t beat the networking you get face-to-face at a conference.”
And I always think to myself, really?
At the bottom of my question is some skepticism about (a) how good the average person really is at networking for learning in a live conference environment, and (b) whether the quality of that networking is really better than the (often unconscious) networking that most people – at least among the sorts that are likely to attend conferences – already do online.
Here are some of my theories:
- Most people meet a relatively small number of new people at any given conference or other face-to-face event, and many of the conversations with those people are confined to polite chatter like “So, have you been to this conference before?”
- Related to the first point, most people tend to connect or re-connect with people they already know, and in many cases, are in touch with relatively frequently. Sometimes these people have new knowledge to impart. Often they don’t, or to the extent they do, it remains hidden.
- Increasingly, a great deal of the valuable networking that goes on around a conference is actually happening online or on our mobile phones – through e-mail, through Twitter, on Facebook, in blog comments and posts. As I have written elsewhere, people don’t tend to think of this as online learning, or even learning in general, but it is. Arguably, the place-based event is a catalyst for it, but much of the value generated is not really dependent upon face-to-face interaction.
Now, none of this is to say that there is not value in face-to-face events and the networking that comes with them. Some people view them as essential for removing distractions and focusing, for example. I agree with that, up to a point, but certainly conference fees and travel costs can be a high price to pay for artificially imposed self-discipline.
Additionally, connecting with friends, colleagues, and the occasional new acquaintance helps to form and cement emotional bonds that are vital to a productive, happy professional and personal life. Admittedly, these bonds are sometimes (though certainly not always) the foundation for effective networking online. But I suspect they are just that in many cases – a foundation – and that increasingly a lot of the actual networking and value generation, from a learning standpoint, is happening online.
“Can’t beat the networking you get face-to-face” – at least to the extent that the objective of the networking is developing new knowledge – is overrated.
Well, that’s my perspective at least. What’s your?