When it comes to complex business talks or training sessions, nothing beats face-to-face meetings.
Well, technology may be changing that—which is not to suggest you immediately should get rid of your conference room. But, in order to appreciate how this new technology can affect your business meetings, a little background is necessary.
Because of the Internet, most organizations today make extensive use of e-mail and so-called groupware, software that permits people to work collaboratively—sharing ideas, planning meetings and working together on documents. In most cases, however, the work does not occur in real time or is not synchronous—as the information technology gurus say, whereas, in a face-to-face meeting, it is.
The best environment
Face-to-face communication provides several benefits: You can simultaneously observe gestures and facial expressions and hear voice inflections. Further, a lot of multitasking—simultaneous listening, watching and working on a document, say—can take place in a face-to-face meeting. And if a team of workers has never met before, there is nothing like an in-person gathering to acquaint them with each other’s learning and decision-making styles. Major differences in philosophy also quickly become apparent. Consequently, such meetings are still the best environments for introducing new ideas to a group.
Once an idea has been introduced and a plan put into place, asynchronous (not-in-real-time) applications, such as e-mail or groupware, are effective for sharing documents and building upon those plans. At some point though, this mode becomes inadequate.
For example, once a group completes part of a project, it often has to reconvene, compare notes, refine a strategy and then get back to work on individual efforts. This is where synchronous applications become most useful. Many business professionals successfully use a combination of face-to-face meetings and asynchronous applications. But when it comes to using synchronous meeting tools, most have found them hard to work with—until now.
The newly available synchronous tools come in several varieties, but the basic features include video, voice and data conferencing. Video conferencing, the feature that has received the greatest attention, has had the slowest market growth because it demands very large amounts of expensive bandwidth. In addition, it still generally suffers from problems with quality and stability.
Data conferencing is, perhaps, the least hyped but most promising feature of electronic meetings. With it, participants can share or transfer documents and presentations, they can participate in whiteboarding exercises (in which words or pictures drawn on an electronic whiteboard are transmitted to remote locations) and they can speak to each other.
Tools that facilitate synchronous sharing of applications are the fastest growing segment of the electronic conferencing market. By excluding video, data conferencing is kept technically simple, and users don’t need as much expensive bandwidth to transmit the video signal.
In addition to its use in group decision-making, as described above, synchronous meeting applications have many potential uses: training, product and service support; brainstorming sessions; and continuing education programs.
How to get started
To illustrate this technology, I’m using Centra 99, a popular data and voice conferencing application. Once I’ve assembled a virtual meeting and the participants log in, I can control the presentation from my computer.
Exhibit 1 shows what a PowerPoint presentation slide looks like on a Centra screen. I (Amy, the facilitator) post a statement and invite participants to vote on whether they agree with it. Normally, there will be more than one participant, but in this case we have one, Doug, who has selected a green check button on his toolbar to vote in favor of the statement. Had he disagreed, he would have selected the red button. This is a quick way to identify the degree of consensus in a group.
The toolbar on top of the screen contains several icons, including ones for polling the participants, a chat box for typed comments and responses, the sharing of a Web site and a whiteboard.
In exhibit 2 , I use open-ended questions to encourage discussion. The number 1 next to Doug’s name, under the hand icon, indicates Doug has “raised his hand” and wants to ask a question.
The chat box is used for making a comment or asking a question, as shown in exhibit 3 . Online chats can occur at any time during the meeting. If I wish to precisely capture participants’ comments, I can request that specific feedback be typed into the chat box.
If the facilitator or the participants want to combine text and hand sketches, Centra provides a whiteboard feature. Exhibit 4 shows that Doug made a comment (top of screen) and added a sketch. Under that, I added my own text and another sketch. All the participants view the postings simultaneously.
In addition, Centra allows me to bring up a Web page and display it on the screen. Or I can place participants into temporary virtual breakout sessions.
To examine some of the leading (synchronous) conferencing applications further, check out the following products:
For more information about synchronous applications, see the following:
Data conferencing is the wave of the future. While admittedly still a little crude, the technology is advancing quickly. In the meantime, managers should start familiarizing themselves with the products available now. They may find some that suit their immediate needs. But more important, it’s time to rethink the process of group meetings—to see how they can be adapted to take advantage of data conferencing.
—Amy W. Ray, PhD, associate accounting professor, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.©1999 AICPA