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Mixing with Royalty: Conferences and Creative Thinking

by | Jun 16, 2022 | 0 comments


By Derek Law, Professor Emeritus, University of Strathclyde

One of the very few benefits of Covid-19 is that I have been using my local public library much more and using serendipity wandering round the shelves to find new things to read. On a recent visit I came across a novel in the New Arrivals section by Pamela Hart called The Charleston Scandal: Mixing with Royalty Comes at a Price. Inevitably this made me think longingly of the last time I made it to Charleston in person for the conference. Then by one of those neat twists of fate, when I got home and logged on to my laptop I received a link to a new research paper published in Nature about the benefits of in-person meetings versus on-line meetings.

Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

Quite a lot of research and comment now exists about the relative value of the two options, but much of that research is closer to opinion polls than original research and focuses on cultural and technical issues as much as the relative value of the two ways of working. As a user, having an online meeting via one of the many on-line platforms that lasts more than thirty seconds can seem absolutely interminable. But such meetings have soared in number. For Zoom alone the number of meetings went from 10 million a year to 300 million a year between 2019 and 2020 and it is now showing a growth rate of 3,300 per cent over the last three years.

It’s so easy for your mind to drift when you’re sitting in front of a laptop screen, and when you have someone rambling on about something or other, without having anyone else around you and no physical connection to the speaker, it can be very hard to care. And it’s so easy to check your mail or Twitter while pretending to listen. As if the endless muting and freezing, the need for background pictures of shelves lined with high literature or pictures of Hawaii sunsets in order to prevent houseshaming , the acceptability of eating and drinking on screen and the constant fear of someone  wandering on screen unclothed were not enough to worry about, in this new study researchers have found that on-line meetings stifle creativity.

The paper is by Melanie S. Brucks and Jonathon Levav from Columbia and Stanford respectively and is entitled Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation. The researchers recruited more than 600 volunteers who were paired up to tackle a creativity task either together in the same room, or virtually over Zoom. The pairs had five minutes to come up with creative uses for a Frisbee or bubble wrap and a minute to select their best idea. Independent judges ruled that turning a Frisbee into a plate was less creative than using it to knock fruit from a tree, while using bubble wrap to send morse code messages was more creative than using it to protect a baby. Overall, those who worked over Zoom had 20% fewer ideas than those who met face to face.

The same effect was apparent in the real world. In a field study, they then analysed ideas for new products generated by 1,490 engineers for a multinational company. The engineers, who were in Finland, Hungary, India, Israel and Portugal, were randomly paired up and given an hour or so to brainstorm products either in person or over Webex videoconferencing. They then selected their best idea. The researchers report that the engineers produced more ideas, and more innovative ideas, when working face to face. “They are not only generating a larger number of creative ideas, but their best idea is better,” Brucks said.

Of course, as well as factual studies there has been lots of debate over the benefits of in-person versus virtual attendance at conferences with pros and cons on both sides. Everyone will be sober in online conferences and will also have the opportunity to step away from their computer or phone to answer the door or make a coffee or simply just pretend to be working while actually watching YouTube. I’m not saying I’d do that… Just that some irresponsible folks might?

And so I have decided that I’m going back to Charleston this year. To meet old friends, to make new friends, to network professionally, to discover new thinking and new ideas – and new products – and to mix with Royalty!

The City Market and the Fish Bar, the bookshops, grits for breakfast – so South Carolina but so like my own porridge here in Scotland – and gossip both personal and professional in a bar sipping at a little glass of scotch whisky. All of these things and many more completely outweigh the solitariness of the twelve inch screen on my laptop, even if I can’t attend the meeting in my pyjamas.

See you there!

Editor’s Note: Registration is now open for the 2022 Charleston Conference!

About the Author:  Derek Law is Emeritus Professor of Informatics at the University of Strathclyde. He was chair of the JISC Advance Board until its closure in 2015 and has worked in several British universities and has published and spoken at conferences extensively. He is a regular project evaluator for the EU and has undertaken almost fifty institutional reviews. Most of his work has been to do with the development of networked resources in higher education and with the creation of national information policy and he has been PI on some twenty research projects. Recently he has worked on the future of academic information services. A committed internationalist he has been involved in projects and research in over forty countries and is a former Treasurer of IFLA. He was awarded the Barnard prize for contributions to Medical Informatics in 1993, Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1999, an honorary degree by the Sorbonne in 2000, the IFLA medal in 2003, Honorary Fellowship of CILIP in 2004 and was an OCLC Distinguished Scholar in 2006. He has taught at library schools in Australia, Malawi, Poland and at UCLA.


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