October 28, 2008

Conference Calls Are Awesome

McLuhan famously said "The medium is the message." In my 10 months in Shanghai, I've been learning just how true that is. More than once now I've been involved in a disagreement or similar situation that has been instigated, and carried through, in email. These emails take a lot of time to write and respond to, because we all want to be precise. And because of the time difference, I don't receive emailed replies until the next day. And text-based communication removes a lot of the verbal cues you get when talking to someone.

Each time, after the emails have bounced around for a week or so, someone has suggested a conference call. These calls have cleared the air, clarified intentions, removed negative feelings, and gotten everybody on the same page and moving forward.

So as emails continue to fly between Shanghai and Austin, I've learned to listen to that first feeling of frustration in "We're not making any progress here" or "There's some incredible misunderstanding going on here". At the first hint of that, I suggest a conference call. Because of the 13- or 14-hour time difference between the branches, those calls can be painful. They involve someone staying late (or remote-desktopping into the office from home) and someone getting up early. But that's the reality of doing business in a global economy (and a global company). For me, it just means 1) an easier time catching a cab in Shanghai and 2) two cups of coffee in the morning instead of one ;-)

And the calls, as I've said, are worth it for the benefits they provide and the time they save. Emails are great for one-off questions, things that don't need a huge amount of explanation, or confirming something that everybody agrees with. But when you get into the nitty-gritty of brainstorming, resolving arguments, introducing unfamiliar concepts, or similar complexities, conference calls are invaluable.


  1. A wise man once said (not sure who), never e-mail when you can call, and never call when you can visit. Low-latency communication rocks.

  2. Hi Ryan,

    I know your blog from the Content Wrangler Community on Ning as I was prospecting documentation people such as you for my company CSOFT, which is a translation and localization service provider based in China.

    I can't agree with you more on this post. I'm now based in Boston and the most used communication tool for my co-workers around the globe and the Beijing headquarters is email; however, as you said, the most effective one is still conference call. We do twice a week and now it's getting harder for me because of the changing to Summer time.

    Still, I think there are many other tools such as wiki to explore. Working for global company such yours and mine is challenging, but we are very lucky also to be standing upfront and making the world into one possible.