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The Virtue of Virtual. Whatever That Means!

Richard Savage

It is fascinating how new words (or old ones) enter our vocabulary and are suddenly on everyone’s lips. Over the last few years, previously unknown words like Brexit or Covid-19 were unheard of but quickly become broadly understood by everyone. Likewise, previously little used (but more common) words like negotiation, lockdown and of course virtual have become ubiquitous.

There is an assumption from government, authority and media that the meaning of the new vernacular is understood. But I’m not sure that it is by many of us.

Everything, it seems, is virtual at the moment. I looked it up. Firstly, the old-fashioned way in an ancient dictionary I have on a bookshelf (Oxford Reference Dictionary published 1986) and secondly via Google. What a contrast in definitions.

The former says:
virtual adj.

  1. that is in effect though not in name or according to strict definition

The Google definition (34 years later) states two options:
virtual adj.

  1. almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition.
  2. not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so.

In our business, we have developed a virtual environment in which we can teach, advise and consult. A project that was in hand before this health crisis, circumstances demanded the accelerated development of it. It’s been a steep learning curve but an exciting one. And now virtual is our ‘normal’. No one saw that coming.

There are still challenges to it. Virtual is too new for many and its efficacy continues to be questioned. I wonder if the older definition still lingers. A sort of ‘nearly, but not quite’ perspective. I felt the same way but quickly became a convert having run webinars and taught quite a few courses in this new environment, working in real time, with people from all over the world. 

About the time my dictionary was published I was working at Saatchi & Saatchi, the world’s most famous advertising agency at the time. I recall we were one of the first agencies around to get a fax machine! The challenge, of course was that our clients didn’t have one so we couldn’t fax them anything! “Can’t see that catching on” the cynics said. But we bought them for our clients and communication became dramatically faster and more efficient. Fax machines at home became the norm.

A decade or so later I recall my boss Bill being asked by his PA if he wanted a computer on his desk to send emails and search the internet. “Can’t see that catching on” he said – ironically a year later we were setting up a pioneering online business at the end of the 90s.

Many of us resist the new technologies, the new ways of doing things but I think we should embrace the new normal. And how we define it. If virtual is now “not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so” I’m a little confused. When we sit on our Zoom, Teams Webex or Blue Jeans calls we physically exist. And we are face to face. We just can’t touch.

Virtual is just a channel of communication. Like the telephone, email and even the touchy-feely version of engaging with other parties - what is most important is what is actually said. And how we say it. The questions we ask. And whether we listen to the answers. There’s nothing virtual about those skills. Nor is the fact we’re going to be doing an awful lot more of it in the future, so we should get as good at it as we can.

Richard Savage
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