Part of the enduring power of print comes from its utility for people working together in physical space. Print is a more physically collaborative medium than online. Two people can sit at a table and point at the same thing in the same moment to make their point, as opposed to asynchronous commenting or disjointed videoconferences.
This leads to some behaviors that keep us rooted in the past — issues are passed out at board and editorial meetings; issues are distributed in-house; copies are used in meetings to discuss new ideas.
The collaborative superiority of print has been reinforced in the literature and was captured well in the (now dated but probably still relevant) book, “The Myth of the Paperless Office.” In the workplace especially, people file digital materials and collaborate with print.
The trap this creates at publishers with active print legacies is that they often use print versions of journals or articles when talking about how to improve things or what to do next. Tablet versions are a bit clunky and hard to collaborate with, and print-outs of web pages routinely break apart in print or take multiple sheets of paper to render, with all sorts of weird margins interrupting the flow. Online still does not transfer well to print. Or, put another way, we’re having a hard time finding ways to collaborate around online in the workplace.
With all this in the back of my mind, one of the small changes I wanted to institute in my new office was to put a large flatscreen TV on the wall, so I could share my screen and use it as a way to plunk online into collaborative discussions.
This idea wasn’t mine — many areas in various organizations routinely use big flatscreen televisions for videoconferencing and design discussions. We have also, as Kevin Kelly put it, “become people of the screen.” Screens are all around us. We carry them with us, fly with them glaring at us, and usually have 2-3 within arm’s reach. But for the publisher to add one in his (or her) office? It seemed a little novel.
This office addition has had the intended effect, which manifested itself quickly. Discussions with visitors and staff that start out with people reviewing printed materials even as they are talking about content or ideas that are generally in the digital realm can be nicely redirected. The effect is palpable — suddenly, ideas start lining up with online practices and possibilities. Print boundaries and assumptions fade. Better and more appropriate opportunities and limitations emerge. It’s really been quite a startling change.
I’ve seen many subtle benefits. We can also collaboratively search for things in this mode. So, if a question comes up that would normally be handled by either collective head-scratching or with someone volunteering to search for an answer later, or via smartphone at the table, the group can search, discover, discuss, and move on together. It accelerates group learning and discovery, and also ratchets the energy level up.
Another unexpected benefit of having a 50″ television on my office wall is that collaborating with outside groups is far better. We have used it repeatedly to review presentations or web resources via conference call, or to go over a spreadsheet in more the style of an interactive classroom, with different people seeing different things and taking over the teacher role. (You can also check formulas together, which helps eliminate errors.) Discussions are shorter, crisper, and more effective.
I have two options for connecting my computer to the flatscreen — a long HDMI cable, which adds the flatscreen as a third screen (laptop, desktop monitor, and flatscreen); or a wireless connection to a small receiver connected to the TV via another HDMI cable, with a small USB dongle acting as the transmitter. This last option causes the laptop display to mirror on the other two screens. Either mode works well, and switching the TV on and setting it up takes about 15-30 seconds for either approach.
Now, granted, I could have kept this device out of my office, and simply used televisions in nearby conference rooms. But the spur-of-the-moment ability to shift a discussion from print to digital has impressed me. The flatscreen proved to be both cheaper to obtain and more valuable to possess than I initially thought it would be, and I was a fan of the idea to start with.
Finally, there is a symbolic aspect to this — having a big monitor available and prominent like this in the office of the publisher sends a message. Things have changed. Digital is central. Print is not the only format we talk about.
I may be behind the times in making this change, but if I am, I’m happy to join those who went before me. And if you haven’t done this yet, I highly recommend it.