I’ve been reminded a lot over the past few days about the limits to email’s power and the social distance created by electronic tools. Email, even for the most careful writer, is fraught with difficulties in communicating issues of a sensitive manner or being emotive. Outside of the most simplest forms of expression, like rage or extreme joy (think: OMG!!!!!!!), there is so little opportunity to truly convey emotion or context without going into a long story.
I find it hard to convey emotions like frustration while not appearing to be angry, love (or affection and admiration) without looking trite, and confusion without seeming to be clueless. These are all complex emotions, ones that are better conveyed through a glance, a hug, or a sigh than they ever are by printed words. And yet, we expect to achieve strong, effective communication through email all the time.
Skype or iChat, both visual media, are better, but even then it is difficult to get the warmth (or cold) from another person at a distance. I’m reminded of the work of W. Brad Johnson and Charles Ridley and their book ‘The Elements of Mentoring’ where they synthesize the vast field of mentorship and conclude that face-to-face time is critical for effective mentorship. They also observe that apprenticeship, the highest form of learning, is done through collaboration — that is, co-labour. Working together, alongside one another, is what counts. This can’t be done remotely.
I’ve been very productive with groups of people whom I’ve never met, or seen sparingly. I’ve published articles, written grants, and created entire curricula without ever being in the same room with my collaborators. But in each of these cases, while there was a product created, there was no advancement of the relationship to sustain the benefit of that product to the world. The paper was created, it was now dead. Whereas those times I did the same thing working with someone, really working with them, the products were taken in many directions I couldn’t have anticipated. This is the goal of knowledge translation: to get knowledge into practice.
So if this is true, could it be that the fundamental core of any KT plan is to get people together and find ways for them to protect interaction time? Is it possible that our efforts at creating better dissemination strategies using distance tools is not the best use of our time?