After a recent conference call I had for an STC chapter meeting, we needed an online mechanism to keep the discussion going. Doc Guy set up a Google Groups discussion site (which includes a threaded forum and wiki) to facilitate the online discussion, and we started a few threads, but soon the discussion focused , unfortunately, only on scheduling dates for in-person meetings.
In a world of virtual tools—blogs, wikis, feeds, forums, listservs, e-mail, IM, chat, Twitter, social networks—one would think that the traditional sit-down, face-to-face meetings had been relegated to a place in a historical museum among other old, discarded traditions (like wearing cravats). But even in the 21st century, many people still believe that if you want to accomplish serious planning and discussion, you need an in-person meeting.
One argument for in-person meetings is the benefit of idea building that sometimes takes place. When you get multiple people talking together, one person begins an idea, another adds to it, and another sees another dimension to it, which triggers an unexpected thought from another, and soon a handful of people create a collective intelligence that yields more than the sum of what each individuals could come up with alone. Many feel that this dynamic idea building, which takes on a life of its own in a lively meeting, is rarely matched in the isolated, typed out threads online.
In reality, part of the reason people feel in-person meetings are productive in generating ideas is that meetings are the only time people set aside to brainstorm a topic. Most participants don't do anything before a meeting. The meeting is the time blocked out for them to actually think and discuss a topic. Until the meeting happens, they fill their time with other tasks and obligations. The meeting is nothing more than a deadline, a period set aside for exploring a topic.
Because meetings are the dedicated time for thinking, it's no wonder so many people should conclude that meetings are the only way to do any real planning. Instead of going this route, however, try merely setting aside time in your own schedule to sit down and think out problems, brainstorm, and explore ideas for a prolonged period of time. Then share those ideas with others online. You'll find the same dynamic idea building can take place in virtual environments.
The reason people often neglect individual preparation and contribution in virtual environments is because online discussions are not time dependent, so they never get done. Being outside time and location is of course the advantage of online discussions, but it's also the downfall.
Without a hard and fast deadline for contributions, the online discussion is often put aside, procrastinated, and ignored until the threads are so anemic they famish. One person responds one day, another responds the day after next, and little by little, contributions sort of trickle in, but you never see the rushing river of thought that happens when a group exchanges in real-time.
This trend of increasing attrition is unfortunate, because online discussions don't have to be divorced from timelines and boundaries. You can set deadlines for discussions and schedule blocks for virtual chats. If you let people know expectations of participation by specific times, the procrastination minimizes. As more people contribute, the interactions increase, and you soon approach the dynamic idea building of face-to-face meetings. But this activity requires a meeting organizer and champion, someone to stoke the discussion, set expectations, prod the silent participants, and keep it all going.
With online discussions, lack of contributions is often interpreted as non-participation. Because Sally, Jim, and Karl aren't chiming in to the discussion, the assumption is that they're busy, offline, or not engaged by the ideas on the table. Seeing the lack of participation, leaders often conclude that the online format isn't working and so they need to "get everybody together" for an in-person meeting. (The phrase "get everybody together," by the way, always makes me cringe.)
However, what happens at these in-person meetings is a similar to what happens online: several people dominate the discussion, and a handful of people quietly observe. Sally, Jim, and Karl can be just as non-participatory in the face-to-face meetings as they are online. And when you confront them for their opinion, it usually turns out that they're apathetic or in agreement with what's already being said.
Although some people in meetings are quiet because they agree or have little to add, another category of people are quiet for another reason: they're shy. Here virtual environments have the upper hand, because virtual environments can give shy participants a new voice. The shy meeting participants no longer have to fight to get a word in, or stand up against a meeting tyrant to reject a prevailing idea, or bumble their ideas with an inarticulate tongue. Expression comes easier with your hands on a keyboard in a comfortable chair. Quiet mice are suddenly roaring lions.
With all the virtual tools are our disposal, we shouldn't be hampered with long, burdensome meetings in distant locations that drag out over an entire afternoon, which people arrive at without having done any preparation or individual brainstorming, and which are assumed to be the only vehicle for thought and discussion among groups. The same productive output is possible through the myriad of online tools available, but it requires participants to take responsibility for engaging and exploring topics on their own.
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