How it began
Business conversations are as old as language. The first traders travelled to isolated sites, crossing landscapes to barter and share news in fireside exchanges of food and stories. Later, people held meetings in dedicated places such as markets and ports, but it was not until the rise of the mail packet ships that mass conversation moved far beyond the face-to-face. Almost everyone knew who they were talking to when they did a transaction, and why.
Trade encounters have taken different forms since then, with individuals working together to increase professional value. The formation of guilds in ancient Rome, for example, and later in medieval Europe, were a way for western craftspeople to manage competition. There were rules to follow, but the essence was a fruitful accountability. Members contributed to a collective, shared skills, and generated value.
Other traders thrived on intellectual capital rather than craft, particularly in London, where coffee houses founded in the 17th century were important hubs for business ideas and opportunities and stayed that was for well over a century. For a penny admission, men and women could debate or gossip with the best minds. The quality of talk in these spaces was topical, often fevered, and results-driven. Some of these cafés were world-class centres, like the one on Tower Street that became the great shipping insurer, Lloyd’s.
The coffee houses’ decline came in the 19th century with the era of the gentlemen’s clubs in London’s St. James’. These had once been the preserve of the gentry but now some were open to new networkers including industrialists and academics, if their credentials fit the club profile. Membership came with a fee, and a set of rules. Outside London, working societies and trade unions were attracting mass membership from the 1820s onwards, in response to industrial growth. These championed workers’ rights in return for subscriptions and gave members a unified voice. Similar bodies grew up worldwide, and are active today, even though their influence has declined under political pressure, and with new ways of connecting.
How it evolved
Models of professional exchange vary over time, but the principles have been more or less consistent. A shared space, an identity that we present in person, and agreed codes of behaviour. Are we still operating by those rules, or are they changing? And if so, is the evolution positive?
Digital advances have given us instant mobile platforms, making conversations faster and more convenient, not to mention safer. Messaging, video and email are new advantages, not just because they reduce labour and travel costs, but because our connections can multiply even without us being present. This is beneficial for professionals in emerging markets in particular, and those living in repressive regimes who face barriers to business.
This convenience and access – as in other media models – is cherished by users, and it’s a great advance. But it does come at a cost, extracted invisibly in our data and our interactions, particularly on apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. It’s an exchange, our behaviour scrutinised in return for services, and traded to third parties for advertising revenue.
What's the problem?
It makes some uncomfortable that their valued talk is commercial property, and alternatives include Telegram, with 300 million users to WhatsApp’s 2 billion, run on a not-for-profit model financed by Russian philanthropist co-founder Pavel Durov, and built by his brother Nikolai. Swiss-led Threema is another, and there’s Signal too, a fast-growing open-source app rejecting Facebook’s data model, founded by ex-WhatsApp co-creator Brian Acton and Moxie Marlinspike, and used by the US Senate for staff communications. Signal is tax-exempt, and received a grant from the Open Technology Fund among others, an organisation set up to ‘counter repressive surveillance’. Both Telegram and Signal offer high levels of encryption, including the chance to send ‘secret messages’.
There are further exceptions. Despite their differences of approach, these platforms all offer a freedom that China’s WeChat, for example, with over a billion users and a close relationship with the Chinese government, cannot. It therefore becomes a question of balance when we choose where we do business. Perspectives vary from nation to nation, depending on our rights and restrictions, or even our politics.
And in making our choices, we should also be conscious that words like ‘privacy’ and ‘safety’ may now be relativized, meaning different things to different people, depending on their intentions. Whatever the semantics, heavily encrypted communications that take place beyond the reach of democratic legal systems can’t always be wholesome, or in society’s interests. It’s a difficult balance to strike.
And the answer?
Whatever the challenges, business people want to share ideas and strike deals, and find the right space in which to do so, so we must all understand and trust the environments in which we have conversations, whether this is face-to-face at the nearest WeWork or coffee shop; on internal tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, or inside a British independent app like Guild, which applies a more traditional model to mobile technology, creating a private, identity-led group messaging platform with more accountability.
As business people, we know environments matter, and common sense tells us the power of our connections is diluted, and trust eroded, when we do business in ‘poorly lit’ spaces. A few well-chosen words can change our business lives, and perhaps we accept this gift too lightly, without trying to reflect on the conditions that generate them. Let’s think about the places to hold our best talk, remembering the role of the host and guest of the past, and not discard them. Let’s think about it, and strive for better.