The Steinbeis Consulting Center Mediation of Business is partnering with a number of organizations and companies to create instruments that settle disagreements between companies. The approach they are developing is based on online video mediation. This ground-breaking project is being backed by the European Commission with funding worth around € 420,000.
Business is now global, so companies often find themselves in disagreement with other companies, sometimes in totally different areas of the world. In fact, it’s not uncommon for physical separation to be a root cause of conflict. Distance impedes quick communication, information and consensus, as well as efforts to build trust. And when companies disagree, working out how to resolve a dispute is equally difficult. Again, distances makes it difficult to act quickly and this is made worse by language challenges. By mediating online via video link, many difficulties can be sidestepped. This can be an inexpensive yet efficient way to find suitable solutions. In fact, video links often make it possible to compensate for problems caused by face-to-face mediation.
The approach is based on an online video platform tailored to the needs of mediation. Supported by a trained mediator, two sides can quickly be pulled into mediation from their different locations. All that participants need is a laptop with a webcam and broadband internet access, which most people in business already have. The online platform is encrypted to safeguard confidentiality. Apart from video and audio through the webcam, it’s also possible to show a variety of materials with a whiteboard, desktop sharing, a drag and drop system for file sharing and even a chat room.
Especially when there are disputes between people from different cultures, it has been found that it is better to involve two mediators, even if they are not in the same location. Their role is to manage the mediation process and help both parties by “inputting” with their different skills, making it possible to exchange views fairly and constructively. The mediators have already conducted successful online mediations with up to six directly affected participants, plus mediators. These days, however, there are still cases when it makes sense to revert to face-to-face mediation, especially if the people involved already know each other quite well. Under such circumstances, mediation via online video link is not suitable.
Both parties have to have a good understanding of the technology involved. Issues such as data protection also need to be considered. Body movements and small gestures are not perceived as easily as in face-to-face mediation. There is also a tendency for people to neglect seemingly trivial factors such as greeting someone or “small talk” in online video mediation. From a mediation point of view, it has been found that some methods and techniques can not be used online. Experienced mediators also ask participants to adhere to certain rules of online etiquette. There may be none of the classic handshakes to make the results of mediation binding, but agreements are generally adhered to.
EU mediation guidelines provide the necessary foundation for written agreements and enforceable protocols, so the parties involved can rest assured that the agreements made in mediation will also be implemented. Online video mediation is therefore a serious contender for conventional face-to-face mediation!
Bernhard Böhm Dr. Gernot Barth
Steinbeis Consulting Center Mediation of Business (Leipzig)
As part of the project, Italian mediation experts Resolutia and the Steinbeis Consulting Center are staging culture.communication – an international conference on online video mediation (October 19-21, 2011, Florence). Visit the center website for more information.