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Online is good but can it replace face-to-face?

Do assumptions made about online services play out in reality? Internet consultant Graham Jones takes a view

Businesses and organisations the world over have for the past couple of decades been looking forward to the day when they can deliver almost all their services online. The theory is that this will cut costs, reduce staffing levels, improve productivity and increase efficiency. That is all nice theory. But mostly it is an assumption.

True, you can cut some costs. Email has dramatically reduced postage and distribution costs. But it has significantly reduced overall productivity and increased day-to-day administration costs due to the time it now takes to manage daily emails. The costs of email could well have outweighed the savings it can make.

There are other examples of cost savings from using the Internet that don’t actually turn out to be cost savings. A website may replace a printed brochure more cheaply, but a printed brochure doesn’t need a member of staff or an agency or an entire team to constantly update it and keep it fresh.

The potential savings which the Internet bring us are often mythical. Sometimes, using the Internet costs us more.

Interaction

In the world of face-to-face business you conduct customer research constantly – you do it ‘live’ using body language assessment, asking questions, having conversations and so on. To do that online you need complex analytics and someone to analyse the data and then someone else to reprogram your website to take into account what the data suggests.

In face-to-face, real world encounters, both parties can adjust their views, they can seek answers to specific queries and they can gauge the responses from tone of voice, body language and so on. Try doing that online; the web is nowhere near as efficient as a human being.

However, the Internet clearly does give us several efficiencies and possibilities. One of those is in education.

There are plenty of ways we can learn things online, from self-service courses from a provider such as Udemy, to complete degrees from academic institutions such as The Open University. Educational organisations are rushing headlong to the Internet in a bid to sign up students from across the globe. But is it worth it?

There are very few studies of online education, but a recent piece of research from the North Dakota State University shows that students prefer face-to-face. They found online courses more challenging and lacking in interaction.

Whenever areas of our life that involve interaction are studied, the preference always seems to be for face-to-face. That should come as no surprise.

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