Online meetings are no CIO panacea

Electronic meetings are touted as offering CIOs the chance to save money and improve productivity. We argue that until they mature, they also create a new class of workplace challenges.

I first used e-mail in the workplace in 1995, at about the time internet e-mail was becoming ubiquitous. I didn’t use it well then, there are still days I don’t use it well now and there are plenty of businesses that still haven’t figured out how to do very basic things like answer messages to generic customer service e-mail addresses in a consistent and timely fashion. I believe many people still aren't entirely sure about when to mail, when to phone, or how to do either effectively

But this piece isn’t about my work, other than as an example of how business communications tools are adopted.

I started to think about the subject a couple of weeks ago, when I chatted to a colleague with whom I do some work in a not-for-profit organisation. As it happened, the chat took place on the same day as a committee meeting for that organisation and as part of our conversation my colleague inquired if I’d be attending the meeting.

I was on deadline and had to retrieve my kids from a school holiday activity, so could not afford the travel time and instead planned to attend the teleconference that accompanied the physical meeting.

“That’s a shame,” my colleague said. “It means you’ll be multitasking during the meeting.”

How right he was. As the meeting progressed, my mind drifted and a mouse somehow appeared under my hand and started clicking on bookmarks.

Eventually I was asked a question and offered a feeble, distracted, inadequate answer that wasn’t in the same postcode as a substantive or helpful contribution.

Later, I realised that losing attention during a teleconference is something that I also experience during hosted online meetings. I’ve experienced a few of these, largely because vendors of hosted meeting services love to interact with journalists using their products, as an exercise in demonstrating that the medium is the message.

They’re seldom compelling events because Power Point is even more stultifying on a small screen than it is in a darkened meeting room.

“Webinars” I’ve attended have also failed to achieve any great heights. Shorn of the possibility of any theatrical element and staged in an environment (my desk in my office) full of distractions where I’m free to do all sorts of things I’d never do in a meeting room, these events simply don’t excite.

I’ve therefore imagined for some time now that consultancies must be springing up to offer advice about how to stage a really good webinar or online meeting. I’m yet to find one.

I’ve tried to offer a little advice myself: I was asked last year to speak straight to camera for 15 minutes as the keynote speaker in a webinar. I tried very hard to script in some action and humour, knowing that 15 minutes is a very long time to pay attention to a single speaker, never mind someone like me who has a great face for radio.

(To make matters worse, I was talking about storage!)

The host of the meeting was happy with my very meagre efforts, but I’m willing to bet I was pretty boring.

My experiences aren’t what the online meeting or conference call crowd want you to think about. They want me to advise CIOs that their wares are born as full-grown replacements for the way you meet and interact today, minus the carbon and the airfares.

I now believe it’s not that simple.

After all, it’s taken us 15 years to get just a little bit good at email. Expecting new communications and collaboration media to deliver in their first few years of life is surely therefore overly-optimistic.

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