If you think the titillating title will transport you beyond the bounds of propriety, don’t bother to read on. I’m merely referring to the rush one gets from the standard definition of intercourse (according to Merriam-Webster): 1), connection or dealings between persons or groups; or 2), exchange, particularly of thoughts or feelings. Having just come back from working in London, where almost everyone worth talking to in the British sourcing industry is a tube ride away, I’m all pumped up about what I’ve learned—and can visualize—just by having a little physical proximity which fired up some pretty interesting exchanges of ideas.
Maybe Marissa Mayer is on to something, forcing all those Yahoo! employees to put away their bunny slippers, throw on some clothes with buttons, and come into the office. While she’s being pilloried for being unfriendly to families, and forcing ridiculously long commutes, Yahoo’s stock price has started to go north. Why did she do it—to foster the intercourse that just might lead to a new idea or two…
It’s no surprise that three of the most valuable companies in the world don’t cotton to the concept of telecommuting, believing that face-to-face contact is critical to their success. Think Apple, Google and Facebook, envied for their market cap but respected for their ability to innovate. With proximity, their employees solve problems together more quickly without having to schedule calls by sending interminable emails. With proximity, there is greater opportunity for serendipitous interactions—which just may result in the next I-Pad.
Extrapolating to the sourcing industry, you can make the same case for the benefits of proximity. Nothing hatches new ideas like scribbling on a whiteboard with a colleague or client. Having just spent time working in what I’d call the most efficient sourcing hub in the world—London—I’d say that one of the greatest challenge facing innovation in the sourcing industry is lack of intercourse…mmm, I mean interaction…of the physical kind. And I don’t mean teleconferences or webinars, I am referring to that face-to-face proximity where, to quote an AT&T advert, you can actually “reach out and touch someone.”
To some extent, the very technology that fostered the development of the outsourcing and shared services industry gets in the way of its advancement. Technology allows us to harness global talent, working virtually. It’s also darned productive. Get rid of real estate and you can cut out as much as $20,000 per head in indirect personnel cost. Let people work from wherever and you can tap into a larger and less expensive pool of talent, foregoing the need to move people from London to Leeds, or Dallas to Detroit, where they (and their working spouses) don’t want to go anyway.
But I’d posit that productivity isn’t innovation, and may even get in the way of fomenting and implementing the new ideas which are so critical to the outsourcing industry’s success. Tapping into labor around the world severely limits intercourse so vital to innovation. How can you come up with radical new ideas with someone when they’re on the other end of webcam?
Not convinced about the power of proximity? Take, for example, MIT’s famous Building 20. This shack on the campus housed unplanned encounters that led to a string of discoveries in a range of fields-high speed photography, microwaves, linguistics, electronics, and even video games—indeed a magical incubator.
Call it idea sex. When two or more people have direct intercourse, there’s an uptick in collaboration, speed of decision making, and a host of other benefits that working virtually can’t deliver. The gains from the innovation that just might possibly occur will trump any benefit from sourcing productivity or efficiency.