Meetings with outcomes, not just communication

Despite the opportunities for technology to be really disruptive, it is surprising how often it simply digitally replicates existing processes. There is one common business process where the results could be described as patchy – meetings.

Meetings tend not to divide opinion that much. Most would say they have too many, they go on for too long and often appear to accomplish little. Decades of training courses and humorous videos have had some impact, but clearly not enough. Surely technology should be able to make it easier for people to work and collaborate efficiently and effectively in meetings?

Tools supporting collaboration (or claiming to) often try to impose a new working agenda of their own, or YACS (yet another communications stream). This might be innovative messaging based on timelines mirroring those that many have become accustomed to in personal lives via social media. It might include more visual interaction with video and screen sharing. But in most cases the focus is more on the media and ‘unification’ rather than their use. This is more like unified plumbing than unified communications from the individual’s perspective.

Some tools might offer significant improvements, especially if all potential users can be compelled to switch over to them or be encouraged by grass roots adoption. The problem is this rarely occurs smoothly. There are often issues in the edge cases – individuals, processes and data – where the new super collaboration system doesn’t fit well. So people move back to their trusty default approaches, typically email and more meetings.

Moves to reduce email sound good in principal, but the reality often disappoints. However, since meetings occupy probably even more working hours that email, surely it would be a good idea to shift the emphasis to them?

There are many important tasks that occur during meetings; sharing information, discussion, decisions, and allocating actions. Information and communication are important, but only on the path towards beneficial outcomes ie decisions and action. Otherwise the outcome is more, and more and more meetings….

Before and After, as well as During

So where is the effort actually expended in meetings? It is useful to consider the whole process as meetings have a ‘before’ and ‘after’ as well as ‘during’. While there has been a lot of technology applied to ‘during’, not enough attention has been applied to the efficiency opportunities across the entire process.

‘Before’ has to mean more than sharing a calendar invite, of obtuse conference call codes, or to a far flung location via a fire and forget email. To get the right people together at the right time, even with decent remote audio or video conferencing equipment, requires some intelligent juggling and scheduling.

This requires time and effort. But since the information about potential meeting participants is often already there, the intelligence employed could be ‘artificial’. More auto-scheduling effort to streamline and simplify arrangements would pay dividends in terms of time saved and would be appreciated.

Even during meetings, for many the use of technology has focused on the medium of sharing. Despite this, getting connected (the video adaptor challenge, followed by the function key shuffle) and getting remote colleagues involved (does anyone know the dial in code or where the remote is, or how to contact support?) seem to take more time than they should.

Capturing information during meetings and sharing accurately afterwards, jogging the memories of those present and informing non-participants, would be hugely beneficial in steering towards these positive outcomes. Technology to voice record, intelligently transcribe to text would make sharing and searching simpler, and is readily available. The key is to seamlessly integrate this into the collaboration tools that participants are already using for their meetings.

Shifting beyond collaboration

This involves a shift in thinking from the unified communications and conferencing industry. Most have already made the jump towards a focus on collaboration. This is necessary, but not sufficient. The next step is to recognise that the long-entrenched models of how people work together will be hard to change. The whole lifecycle of meetings needs to be enhanced, and where possible, automated.

Meetings might seem tedious and wasteful, but few organisations are going to replace them entirely with virtual timelines, shared repositories or interactive online realities. There is a need to look at the elements of greatest inefficiency, apply technology to make incremental improvements, assess the results and then repeat.

This looks a lot like the agile and DevOps approaches now being used in software development. These are yielding great results in terms of both speed and quality. Isn’t that an outcome all organisations would like to see for meetings as well? Look for tool vendors that are moving beyond the audio and visual media. The ones that are extracting meaning and understanding from how people are communicating are putting real business value into collaboration.

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