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Stranded, Candid or Blended?

December 3, 2013

Fons Trompenaars   

Leading expert on cross-cultural communication and international management

Face to face or digital: Fons Trompenaars examines the high-tech presentation dilemma

Some 2 years ago, I had to present in Munich to the clients of a major European telecommunications provider on the topic of the effect of culture on digitalisation. Coming from Pittsburg just after take-off, the pilot announced we had some technical problems which didn’t allow us to cross the ocean and that we had to change planes in New York.  Knowing I would miss my connection in Paris, I texted my host to say that I was stranded in NYC and wouldn’t be able to make it to the meeting. During the night I got a message back that the company had a Telepresence facility in NYC and if I could get there to present we could go ahead. The next day I got the feedback from my digital session – in summary, it had the highest ratings even compared to the key notes that were done face-to-face. That same week KLM offered me a special little ceramic house for ‘celebrating’ that I had passed the 1,000,000 miles bracket. What the hell am I doing 1500 hours in the air knowing that with sophisticated teleconferencing, I could present from my home base in Amsterdam?

This event was the prelude to the introduction of a digitalization strategy ranging from digital public speeches to country specific apps and E-learning programs for culture and related topics. Despite encouraging research findings on the effectiveness of this approach, different cultures react quite differently on the digital offer. Obviously culture and human behavior are topics that assume the importance of touching and feeling and our experience shows that cultures react differently to the digital offering. In lower context cultures of North West Europe and the US the high tech approaches are significantly more accepted than in the higher context Middle East and Asia for example. They rather prefer high touch face to face encounters in training and speeches.

Since our clientele is increasingly internationalising, this offers a serious dilemma. This high tech-high touch dilemma is most effectively reconciled by the blended approach. Whilst in the high context cultures it is best to start with face-to-face encounters and enrich it with a digital follow-up, we see that in the low context West there is openness for a digital start followed up with face-to-face encounters that enriches the digital learning process. In all cases the question that needs to be addressed now is how can we enhance the depth of the relationship through the use of digital processes and vice versa. And the same is seen in other areas where bricks enrich clicks and clicks are enriched by bricks.