And Now For Something Completely Different…
My daughter-in-law stuck a video on her Facebook page, with the comment that it represented the essence of what she endured many times a day in her work. I watched it, thought it was brilliantly done, and then saw my daughter post it on her page. Her story is a bit different, as she is kind of a collections agent for a company and calls deadbeat corporate customers. She claims that she averages three per week of what the video presents, only with a lot of hostility in the mix. Yum!
The video simply has to do with what business conference calls tend to be like today, with enabling technologies promising so much and delivering something quite different. “A Conference Call in Real Life” by Don’tBeThatGuyFilms cleverly reveals the holes in the digital promise of bringing people together.
As for me, back in the mesozoic age, conference calls did exist, and the differing technology required a different methodology. Since this was well before Skype and the Internet, there were only two practical ways to bring people together without the expense of physically bringing them together.
One was to pick up the phone and go through the gyrations of calling one participant before adding a third one. This was always awkward, with varying rates of success. Truth to tell, it became awkward after companies decided to save money and get rid of all the secretaries. The few survivors, called “Administrative Assistants”, were each loaded with 10 execs instead of one or two. As an aside, I’m not sure of why “secretary” came to be regarded as a pejorative term – the ones I knew were worth their weight in gold, and I’m not exaggerating much. They neatly and adeptly took care of what you yourself were crappy and slow at, so that you could bear down on what you were there for. And they knew they were good – they could observe an engineer flailing helplessly at some routine task that they could nail down in seconds. “Here, let me do that.” Bang. Done.
Administrative Assistants were neatly prevented from being so by the sheer load of work stacked on their desks. The word “backlog” came into vogue then. The AA’s hope was merely to survive the stress, and they had no time or energy to step into situations unasked, and help. Naturally, anyone below the rank of the Holy Ten never saw a secretary again, and were forced to stay literate and learn to type. Perhaps unrelated, Human Resources began to add a prohibition against bringing firearms onto company property at about this time.
The second way to make a conference call was mainly to be able to gather two large groups together by phone. Company A would gather its execs, salesmen and engineers in their conference room, and Company B, the customer, would gather its purchasing agent, marketing guy, QC, production, and any other technical people in their conference room. A speakerphone on each of the two tables was linked by standard landlines, and the call was made at a prearranged time. Each group could interact among themselves with hand signs, facial expressions, notes, and muted voices if needed, while official conversation went into the speakerphone. Perhaps most importantly, there was always a conductor of sorts. This was either the highest-ranking person, or the “driver” of the call’s purpose. That person opened the connection, did introductions, served as spokesman and narrator, led discussion at his/her own end, made sure that the purpose of the call or the problem faced was clearly identified and understood by all, and summarized at the conclusion to officially end the call. The system yielded good results and was as reliable as a brick. The only drawback was that the initial minute of the call had to be used to get everyone (everyone who needed to be heard) at a hear-able distance from the phone’s mic, and that it paid to get an expensive high quality unit. Cheapos sounded like tin cans and string, underwater.
What particularly amuses me about the video is that it clearly depicts the tradeoffs from the old days. At what point does progress devolve into mere change? Modern conference calls equate to an old 3-way phone call on steroids. There’s no need to gather people into two rooms. The number of participants can be large. Heck, they can all call from home in their pajamas, theoretically. Landlines, cellphones, you name it. Wherever, whenever.
What was lost? The sense of connection, cohesiveness and direction. When you’re interacting in a room with your cohorts while talking with a second gathered group on the other end of a reliable audio connection, everybody tends to stay on the same page. Everything stays direct and to the point. When a purchasing agent states a need to know how something works, the engineer at the other end is going to answer differently with his boss and boss’ boss sitting across the table. He may notice their expression of concern that nothing proprietary is mentioned, or they may interact at low voice levels for a moment to shape the true best answer. It worked well, and I could just imagine the difference in risk, time taken, and sense of purpose if I were talking solo in my own cubicle on a modern conference call not initiated by me. I think I would have a sense that not everything was accomplished. I’d be looking for missing limbs, so to speak. Solo talk is like email: it does not convey background, is often inaccurate, shaded or poorly expressed, and is a single viewpoint devoid of groupthink. If this humorous video actually runs too close to reality, then I think my working diet would include animal tranquilizers at 8, 11, and 2.