Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The "Digital Water Cooler"

I worked for multiple companies in the “corporate world” over three decades. We lived in eight cities, in three countries. North, south, east and western US, Japan and China. For work, I traveled to six continents and flew, literally, millions of miles.

When I first started traveling, to communicate you made calls from pay phones, wrote letters, sent faxes.

Back then, the world wasn’t viewed thinking about how it would look later via your IPhone camera on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or WeChat.

Colleagues were communicated with by walking to their office (or cubicle) or meeting them by chance (or plan) in break rooms. Talking was preferred. Texting wasn’t an option.

Between cities or even across oceans; jets, trains and cars traveled at the same speed they do today but life was much slower. I am a the product of a low tech era.

At work, corporate info and gossip often came through “water cooler” conversations or the “grapevine” – unstructured communication that could be random but seemed to have a common form in every place I worked or traveled around the world. Never good at being deskbound, my incessant need to move and curious nature made me a student and daily user of the grapevine.

The Water Cooler has Evolved
Whether it was having coffee with a colleague in Argentina, drinking after work with customers in Tokyo or sipping tea with the office team in Shanghai – I spent most of my career eyeball to eyeball with people. I enjoyed learning about their world, what they felt, wanted for their kids, their career or their company.

Time passed, things changed. Although my use of email started in the 80s, back then it was infrequent and always business related since it came on a mainframe terminal not a PC (younger readers you may need to “google” those arcane terms).

I was not an early adopter of technology but stayed fairly current – in China I had a Motorola Razr (think Jack Bauer in season 1 of "24") in the run-up to the IPhone but to me a phone was not my preferred way to communicate.

After moving back to the US six years ago, my only social media activity was posting pictures on Facebook. Shortly before I was booted out of the corporate world in 2012, I set up a Linked In account and then wondered why. 

Now I know.

Working for myself has been an almost totally positive experience; however early on I had a severe case of “grapevine withdrawal”. Don’t get me wrong my four legged office companions are great company and working out of a home office is the best commute imaginable but I really missed the frequent chats with colleagues and the camaraderie of an office setting. Initially, it seemed like I would just have to live with that void in my work life. Fortunately, a digital solution manifested itself.

One day in a bored moment I set up a new Linked In account because I had not used my first one in so long that I had forgotten the particulars. At first I found the site of limited value but once I starting writing posts about the lithium market, I seemed to get new connection requests every few hours. I discovered how valuable Skype video calls could be. I knew people all over the world – they became my electronic water cooler network. I could talk with people from Argentina to China face to face from my home office.

On a trip back to Shanghai – my buddy and driver, Philip introduced me to WeChat which seems to have the best functioning video chat of any app I have used.

My daughter told me multiple times I should have a Twitter account. I resisted but later decided to give it a try. I have never paid to advertise. I don’t even have a premium (paid) account on Linked In yet I have more business now than I can handle and almost every new person I deal with either says: “I follow you on Twitter” or “I read your posts on Linked In”.

I Finally Gave in and Started Tweeting
My small business is driven by what I know and by staying current in my industry. I continue to travel the world meeting with major lithium related companies face to face but since change happens so quickly; it is great to have a growing digital “water cooler” network. If a client asks me about a market rumor from China or Japan or a supplier’s production problem in South America, I can often debunk or corroborate information in minutes by accessing my network through one of various the digital platforms.

Last summer I challenged the position a Chilean regulator was taking on a matter important to the lithium industry via Twitter. Much to my surprise he responded within a few minutes. We went back and forth on Twitter. The next day I was changing planes in Zurich on my way to Shanghai, I turned on my phone and saw a Chilean Newspaper had printed our tweets and written an article about the issue. By the time I landed in Shanghai, the story had been picked up in Asia and I was getting emails about it. The next day the Chilean paper asked for an interview. I did the interview from the other side of the world. I never met the regulator or the interviewer except electronically.

The speed of physical travel across oceans may be much the same as when my career started; but news travels across global “grapevines” faster than ever – and in most cases the cost is only that of an internet connection. Even in my home office, I am never without access to a global network I could not have imagined just a few years ago.