One of my consulting clients, an animation studio in Los Angeles, was having a problem with its Japanese subsidiary.
Typically, before calling it a day in Los Angeles, directors would assign tasks to animators in Japan, who would send the finished work back before the next morning’s first light shone on the Hollywood sign. One day, a seemingly innocuous request turned into serious drama. The directors wanted to change the direction a beautiful princess was facing in a particular shot. They sent a sketch to Japan, but instead of finding the completed work the next morning, they found a note: “We noticed that you did not fill in the eyeballs in your sketch. Does this mean the princess should not have eyeballs in this scene? And should we remove the eyeballs in other scenes as well?”
The Americans hit the roof and responded: “She’s a flipping beautiful princess! Of course she flipping has to have eyeballs!”
Only they didn’t say “flipping.” You can imagine that this did not go over well in Japan.
The real problem wasn’t the eyeballs. Rather, the beautiful princess was a symptom of a larger issue: No one on the American team had ever met members of the Japanese group, and vice versa. Distant colleagues were “others” from across the vast ocean, with unpronounceable names, people yet not people.
Because they didn’t know each other well enough to talk things out, both sides retreated to (passive) aggression, distrust and anger. What should have been a quick fix nearly derailed an entire division.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is why we still need business travel.
I actually learned this at Wharton, though I didn’t realize it at the time. It started with the cohort system and spread to the Thursday night pub, Wharton Follies, TalkTalk, study groups, group projects, grad student dorms, off-campus house parties and the weekend the entire class of 1990 spent at the Jersey Shore. Having been a dyed-in-the-wool liberal-arts undergrad, I enrolled in Wharton half-expecting cutthroat-shark-pinheads for classmates, but instead I made friendships that have lasted more than 25 years—and good business contacts too.
Companies back then sent the same message. After all, if they didn’t think personal connections mattered, why did they spend thousands of dollars sending representatives to campus recruiting receptions overflowing with wine and hors d’oeuvres?
So I’m puzzled at this trendy notion that you can do business with people you’ve never met. Nobody ever gets to be closer colleagues—not to mention friends, relations or lovers—by not spending time together.
It’s the reason conventions still happen. Go, attend the seminars, learn, but know this: You’ve missed the point if you’re not forging and strengthening relationships at that convention. Google will do about as well gathering you the same information for free, but if you think technology can stand in for getting to know someone over a meal or a beer, maybe you should go back to Wharton.
Yes, I understand the need to keep costs down, particularly in these times. I receive daily earfuls about rising airfares, snafued security, airline merger madness, scarce upgrades and how getting around just generally sucks.
As a Wharton alumna and film producer told me when I first moved to L.A., though, “You spend money to make money.” Few investments are better than those that ensure a team loves working together, whether across an office or across an ocean.
About my animation studio client: We fixed the problem by sending delegations from each team to the other. And since they’ve gotten to know each other, they’ve been working, more or less, happily ever after.
Andy Bender, C’85, G’90, WG’90, is a travel and food writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, the L.A. Times, Lonely Planet and dozens of other publications. He also consults with multinational businesses about navigating cross-cultural issues.