Almost three weeks ago I had the good fortune to attend my first Enterprise 2.0 Conference, in Boston, MA. My attendance, though highly sought after (by me) for over a year (as a representative of the company I just “retired” from), was still somewhat serendipitous, and relied heavily on the generosity of Susan Scrupski, the Executive Director (or, as she is wont to describe herself, the Concierge) of the 2.0 Adoption Council.
This was a new experience for me and I had no knowledge of what, exactly, had taken place in previous conferences – other than what generally takes place at most conferences. There was one major difference this event was going to mean for me. For well over a year I had been accumulating “friends” through my use of social media, especially Twitter. I had never met any of these people face-to-face, yet many of them I felt I knew reasonably well and, in fact, quite a few of them I believed I could trust – at least as much as I would trust any colleague I had ever worked with. Now I was going to have the opportunity to spend some face-time with them, rubbing (and bending . . . over numerous beers) elbows for over three days.
A little over a month ago I posted about the possibilities of building relationships virtually and argued that face-to-face meetings, though valuable, were not necessarily the sine qua non of meaningful, trusting, and useful relationships. I was primarily addressing business relationships and, especially, the necessary interplay of colleagues – peripherally touching on sales and arms-length transactions as well.
I haven’t changed my thoughts on the value of virtual contact and the ability to have meaningful relationships without meeting face-to-face . . . but I surely had to think deeply about it after Boston. Here’s why. My first full day there I made it to the all-day Black-Belt practitioner’s session a couple hours late, due to several snafus I experienced with Boston’s public transportation. I entered a room with no less than 60 or 70 people seated at round tables facing the front of the room as a presentation was being given. I managed to find an empty space, sat down, and immediately started searching the room for “familiar” faces. I soon spotted two people I had become “friends” with via their blogs and, especially, through numerous conversations we’d had on Twitter – Luis Suarez and Mary Abraham (@elsau and @VMaryAbraham, respectively).
I was able to recognize both of them despite the fact I had never seen them in person and only knew what they looked like based on their avatars. This in and of itself should be a good indication of authenticity, now that I think about it. At any rate, as soon as there was a break I moved over to their table and was greeted with the warmth and enthusiasm reserved for old friends. I’m not sure I can adequately express the feelings I had right then and, frankly, it’s taken me this long to sort out my feelings and what I think I learned from the entire experience. I’m not quite certain I’ve processed it all yet, but I’m finally able to complete enough of my thoughts to get a blog out.
Later that evening, after the day’s conference activities were completed, Luis, Mary, and I sat in M. J. O’Connor’s (in the hotel where the conference was taking place) drinking Blue Moons, getting to know each other a bit better, and sorting through the day’s experience. I know that Luis has been to many of these conferences and, as one of the most vocal and prolific proponents I know of in favor of social media, he’s no doubt met many people over the years he had previously only know through virtual media. I don’t think it was the same for Mary and I know it wasn’t the same for me. This was the first time I had come face-to-face with people I had grown to know through Twitter, blogging, Facebook, etc. It was truly a wondrous experience.
Seriously, I’m still not entirely over the whole thing. Consider this. It was the first time in my life I attended a conference for my own benefit. Previously, I attended numerous conferences, but always as an employee of Rocketdyne (in all its incarnations during my career there). Before that, I was in small businesses and I don’t recall ever attending any conferences, so no experience on that level. Now let me bring this back to what I think I learned from this particular level of the experience.
It is possible to conduct business and to build a solid, trusting relationship with people you have never met. It is, however, far preferable to have some kind of face-to-face meeting at some point in time in order to solidify the relationship. Of course, now that I’ve written these words I realize I haven’t communicated with either Luis or Mary since returning to Southern California from Boston. Then again, it’s only been three weeks (almost) since the conference began and, given the intensity of the experience, I don’t suppose that’s so out of the ordinary. I took a week out of my life to attend and had a lot of catching up to do once I returned. Couple that with the death of my last (and favorite) uncle a week ago, I suppose it makes sense.
Oops! I’ve managed to digress, so let me return to my last thought. I believe people who wish to work together virtually can enhance the quality of their relationships by having at least occasional in-person meetings with their colleagues. However, I don’t think it’s a matter of the ability to experience body language, eye contact, etc. so many people assert as the most important aspects of human connection, as much as it’s just the informal, off-hand, and emergent conversations and interactions that can only happen during the course of an afternoon or evening spent together. This should include, if possible, sharing a meal or sitting in a pub and bending elbows over a pint or three of some good beer, ale, etc.
As I said, I haven’t entirely processed how I feel about this or what I think I’ve learned, but I’ve waited long enough to write something down about the experience. I plan on posting at least twice more on what I got out of the conference. My next post will be more of a compilation of the many posts others far more knowledgeable than me have written since the conference was over. Following that, I intend on discussing an issue of Enterprise 2.0 I think is missing from the equation; namely some of the design principles of Web 2.0 I think E2.0 should be emulating and that I don’t see at present. Stay tuned.