Is a web-based meeting the most effective social construct for today’s collaborative world?
Today, virtual meetings suffer from the assumption that individuals and enterprises want them to function exactly as a face-to-face meeting would; this is particularly true for geographically distributed teams. And since there has been little innovation in this area for over a decade, most businesses — small and large — have bought into the current model, thinking it contains the only set of tools and processes at our disposal. But ideally, enterprises should not be constrained by this, and new technologies, along with behaviors, could finally make web-based meetings more popular — and more productive.
When we initially started meeting online in the 1990s, there were severe limitations to the technology; businesses and organizations had to adapt their behavior to deal with those limitations. But today, an iPhone 4 has more processing power than a mainframe did back then, we have the ability to stream video, and hundreds of thousands of mobile apps at our disposal that are not only elegant but run on smaller, more mobile screens.
Given such technological advancements, why are we still conducting virtual meetings like it’s the ’90s? Most of the web conferencing tools — WebEx, SameTime, LiveMeeting, GoToMeeting — are pretty much the same as they were 10 years ago. Yes, enhancements have been added to them, and they have better support for VoIP and can accommodate more people in a meeting, but overall there has been little innovation in this area for quite a while. And if you’re looking for traditional software vendors to lead the way in this space, think again.
The Tools of Tomorrow’s Web Conference
What would a truly online meeting look like? Ideally we could gather more and different types of information in an online meeting than possible in person because we’re not constrained by the physical limitations that exist with the latter.
For example, through software from AMI called JFerret, my computer is able to track and display user data in a graphic showing “meeting dominance;” instead of me trying to remember what everyone in the meeting has said, my computer generates a written transcript of that information in a separate window. Having this voice-to-text meeting transcript (below) has a lot of benefits: I can scan back through what people have said; I could highlight a word and ask the computer to find out what others in the meeting think about it; I could copy a colleague’s words back into the conversation to remind them of their prior comment; and I might pull action items out of the transcript and ensure someone in the meeting was assigned them as a resources for the task.
What if meeting software told me the skin temperature and pupil dilation size of everyone in the meeting using a dynamic graphic like a sound meter? With this information, I would not only know who is listening, but how my words affect them emotionally, even when they are not in the same room with me. Finally, computers could analyze what is said in a meeting, search for keywords and pull up any blogs, online discussions or social network feeds on the topic so attendees could view their discussion in a larger context.
I have not seen a tool that does all of this currently (though that does not mean it isn’t out there). Gist, now owned by Research in Motion, does about half the job: It allows users to do intelligent aggregation of each attendees inboxes (Outlook, Facebook LinkedIn, etc.), and also places those individuals in context by creating a profile using publicly available information from sources such as Rapleaf. New versions of Xobni Pro, meanwhile, allow you identify contacts from your email and get photos, job and company information and updates for your contacts’ LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Something most executives I know wish for is the ability to attend more than one meeting at the same time. At some point in the near future, my avatar (left) might be smart enough to attend a meeting for me and report back when it’s over.
InteliWISE first introduced intelligent avatars in 2008 in the SecondLife virtual environment. “At InteliWISE we have created an avatar – a virtual employee, which never sleeps, and thanks to AI algorithms and its ‘learning’ process, the virtual employee can talk to hundreds of clients at the same time,” Marcin Strzałkowski, InteliWISE CEO, wrote in a blog post. “Our virtual employee is directed at the companies and institution[s] which want to present themselves in the best possible way in Second Life.”
All of this augmented meeting software would give either the meeting initiator or attendees more information than they would get with a traditional face-to-face meeting, or with some of the older tools currently on the market.
Meeting Management Behavior
Online meetings are not just about technology; people and process remain the other critical elements for success. How many boring project status meetings have you sat through (virtual or in person)? How many meetings have you attended with an interesting subject matter, but the person running the meeting was inept? How many times has the conversation gone off topic and the discussion entails something that in the long run makes little difference?
There are some new tools available to help with meeting management and behavior:
- YAM runs in a browser and offers features like brainstorming, Whiteboard and SWOT analysis. It can also integrate with Skype, WebEx and Outlook.
- MeetingSense is similar in that it also offers pre- and post-meeting collaboration, agendas and other meeting features; it is tied to Outlook.
- PowerNoodle includes brainstorming features, tools for convergence and prioritization of ideas and eventually moving the resolutions into tasks and follow up. The tool helps facilitators make their meetings more interesting and keeps them on track for better outcomes.
One suggestion I have for all of these meeting improvement tools is to dump their task output into a project management tool. YAM, for instance, is working with Google Tasks, and MeetingSense can place tasks into Outlook. By allowing this, the software can often give the meeting facilitator immediate feedback, saying, for example, that “Roger is already committed as a resource 120 percent for that time period.” This means that the task owner must find someone else as a resource.
Aside from technology, here are other rules for better meetings:
- Don’t do status meetings in person (or virtually). Save those real-time interactions to deal with issues that need a back-and-forth conversation to work out a solution. You are better off posting status updates in a distributed project management (DPM) tool like PIEMatrix, TeamBox or Central Desktop. Status information works better asynchronously; if it is so important that the status has to be updated right way, then it probably is an issue that needs to be discussed in a real-time conversation.
- Don’t let the tool get in the way of the conversation. How many times have you been asked to be in a WebEx or GoToMeeting event where you must log in, download the software, deal with the audio (VoIP or POTS) and make sure everyone else is on the same page (literally) before starting the actual conversation? Often when we talk with our large enterprise clients about their use of WebEx or Adobe Connect, we hear complaints; usually they are about the meeting process and how awkward it is, or how the technology did not work correctly.
- Don’t run a meeting you own. This is a mistake most people make. But if you have ever been in a facilitated meeting, you can see/hear the difference immediately. In this case, the meeting owner or convener is able to listen and be part of the meeting rather than being forced to run the meeting — which often leads to them doing a poor job at both. The best scenario is to have a meeting facilitator like the ones at Facilitate.com or PowerNoodle, but if that resource is not available, assign someone in the meeting to the role of facilitator and another person to the role of scribe.
- People need to do their homework before meetings. In some meeting tools, like Adobe Connect, you can create a persistent meeting space. You can post different documents or objects there and notify the meeting participants that the content is available and should be read prior to the meeting. With some of these tools you can track who has read which document, and when. You can also track any conversation that occurred around any of this content.
- Ensure outcomes from the meeting are assigned as tasks to the appropriate people. Make sure that task outputs are easily moved into a task tool or project-management tool. Otherwise they run the risk of getting lost.
I believe we are working today with tools focused on an old model of face-to-face meetings. Today’s meeting software should give us more information, make virtual meetings a more efficient set of processes and support both synchronous and asynchronous interactions. Once these virtual meetings start to change, they will become more ubiquitous — and more effective for businesses.