By Kathleen A. Paris, Office of Quality Improvement, UW-Madison & Mathew J. Cullen, Sr., President, Station 1, Inc., Madison, WI
Technology dissolves the boundaries of time and space and brings us together into "virtual rooms." Using technology forces us to "rethink" old ways of doing things and, taking many variables into consideration, nudges us to create new ways that expand and enhance our methods. Articles in past DESIEN issues have focused on the educational uses of technology for courses and programs. There are many other uses (as you will note in the section on the WATF grant awards): sharing information, briefing staff and other executives, holding meetings, conducting interviews, carrying out varied types of examinations (medical, technical, etc., demonstrating products or projects, etc.) This FOCUS article looks at meetings and Ideas for Successful Technology-Assisted Meetings. (Rosemary Lehman)
Technology can be immensely helpful for streamlining and improving meeting productivity. This article is intended to help you think about how four technological tools might be useful to your organization and to suggest some strategies for success. The four tools include: discussion data bases, electronic meeting systems, video conferencing and e-mail.
Discussion Databases - are useful when participants are available at different times. Also referred to as groupware or threaded discussion or forums, they are asynchronous, enabling participants to work at different times. (They are ideal when different time zones or work schedules make even phone conferences difficult.) Examples include Lotus Notes, Netmeeting Collabra, Hypernews, WebCaucus, Facilitate.com, The Soft bicycle Company's Consensus@nyware(r), PushPin(TM) and Ceilidh(TM).A discussion database is more "orderly" than an unstructured list serve because participants nest their replies, comments, questions and hyperlinks under the message to which they are responding. This provides a visual map of the discussion. For anyone who has been overwhelmed by the volume and perhaps chaotic structure of a free-for-all e-mail discussion, these applications are worth a second look. The visual "map" of responses means that discussions can be focused and refocused, analyzed and summarized with relative ease. The chief advantages are that all these products are or soon will be configured for use on the World Wide Web and Internet. This means that regardless of the operating system, people can work collaboratively on-line in ways never before possible. Videoconferencing - is an alternative for collaborative efforts that occur at the same time with participants in different locations. The technology can range from a fully-equipped studio to a tiny video camera mounted on a desktop computer (soon the camera will come with the computer.) Instructional Communications Systems (ICS), UW-Extension offers videoconferencing training and services, making it possible to "try it" without necessarily having the on-site technology. Commercial businesses such as Kinkos, AT&T, Sprint, Omni and others also provide these services. Electronic Meeting Systems (EMS) - usually support meetings in which participants are together at the same time and place. Research studies on EMS show that meeting time can be reduced by 71% and a study by Boeing showed a 170% return on investment for groups using EMS (Marsh, 1996). One type of EMS is a network of personal computers set up in a room and guided by a facilitator using a "chauffeur" computer. Participants have their own computers (often laptops) and enter their ideas, questions, comments via their individual keyboards. All the ideas are shown on the front projection screen. The items can be discussed and quickly sorted with the results displayed graphically within a few seconds. The fact that everyone contributes at once can create great time savings. Depending on the task at hand, EMS voting and prioritizing can be used to narrow choices, select alternatives or focus the conversation to reach consensus. Participants can leave with meeting results in hand. Some examples include Meeting Works(TM) for Windows and Ventana's Groupsystems. (You can download MeetingWorks (TM) or Windows free for up to 8 participants from: http://www.entsol.com.)
The second type of EMS utilizes electronic keypads which enable participants to vote or submit numbers. The polling results are shown immediately on a projection screen. This keypad technology can be used with groups as large as several hundred. Examples include Leadership 2000 Conexus and Options Technologies.
Challenges - Each of these technologies has its own advantages and limitations. Following are some challenges they all share. Some people may be reluctant to use the technology. Communication is not as complete in the absence of non-verbal cues and paralanguage that accompanies F2F encounters. Technology can easily shift the balance of power within a group, moderating the impact of high verbal, high status members. Participants from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds may respond differently to the technology, especially at the beginning. Organizational culture may not support sharing of information and effort. Speed, availability and dependability of the hardware and software may also be issues. Participants with disabilities may need special accommodation in materials design.
To Increase Productivity - Markowitz (1998) says, "In general, groups who have worked together before get the best results using computer mediated communications." She suggests that if participants have not met before, send photos and personal/work biographies on each person. This gives participants information they might have learned through other means in a F2F meeting. (Soft Bicycle's Consensus@ nyware(r) has the bonus of including small photos of meeting participants next to their comments.)
The fundamental requirement for a successful F2F meeting holds true for technology-assisted meetings: a clear purpose for the meeting is essential. To ensure that the purpose(s) can be achieved, every meeting assisted with technology requires advance planning (e.g. What are the intended outcomes? How many issues can we reasonably handle? What do we need to do ahead of time?) Involve some of the meeting participants in planning the agenda and identifying key questions.
Facilitation greatly enhances technology-assisted meetings and is essential for videoconferencing and EMS. Facilitators help keep the activity on track, ensure that the full spectrum of ideas is explored, and ensure full participation and access to the tools (Holt, 1998). The facilitator can also assist the group in developing ground rules for working together.
Keep the technology as simple as possible, especially at the beginning. The software may have the capacity to do more than the group is able to do. Palloff and Pratt (1998) suggest that all on-line meetings should be viewed as learning experiences. Acknowledging them as such creates a sense of community which can enhance a groups' effectiveness.
Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the International Association of Facilitators, Santa Clara, CA:Holt, Margaret. (1998). Exploring possibilities for deliberation with internet collaboration tools.
Markowitz, Jana. (1998). Technology-assisted meetings: When to use what tools.
Palloff, Rena and Pratt, Keith. (1998). Facilitation in cyberspace: New approaches, new skills.
AS/400 systems Management: Marsh, Bruce F. (August, 1996). The electronic way of seeing eye-to-eye. pp. 60-62
Distance Education Clearinghouse
Instructional Design at Instructional Communications Systems
Training for Videconferencing
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Last Updated: January 2006