Ten things to manage in a recession: 2 – meetings

This is the second in a series based on my friend Ross Sturleys’ Ten Things to Cut in a Recession Before You Cut Your Marketing (presented at last month’s CIMCIG conference and in recent Construction News marketing e-newsletters) – number one was “Cut association memberships”.

Number two: “Cut meetings”

Ross starts his diatribe against costly and time-wasting meetings by relating an experience at retailer Tesco’s UK head office, where he said visitors don’t get tea and biscuits and are forced to stand – a policy that keeps meetings short, focused and cheap. Catering drives up the cost of meetings, he says, as does needless attendance:

“Not only does tying staff up in meetings cost you cash, it costs you opportunity. If they’re not in the meeting, they could be doing some work.

“My immutable law of meetings is that, rather like a roast, they take 15 minutes a person and 15 for the pot. That stems from the basic human need to feel there’s a point in you being there, which forces you to speak, even if it’s just to repeat (or ‘build on’ to use the favoured HR jargon) the comments of others.”

I couldn’t agree more. I have spent much of the past nine years promoting web-based communication (so-called ‘extranets’ or construction collaboration technologies) as a means to reduce reliance on paper-based documentation and to reduce face-t0-face meetings about that documentation. What could you do to eradicate meetings, or to make what meetings you do have more efficient? These are some of the questions I would ask (and the observations I’d make from a web 2.0 perspective)….

  1. What is the purpose of the meeting? Why do we need to meet at this particular time? What is the objective? What is the agenda? What are the outcomes we are aiming to achieve? Meetings need a clear objective and an agenda to guide and focus the minds of those attending them. If the meeting is simply about sharing information, why not distribute it electronically; if there is no group work to be done, why meet at all?
  2. Who needs to attend the meeting? Too many meetings are arranged out of habit, with the same people invited to attend – and not necessarily the right people.   If some issues only concern two or three people, consider a separate meeting of some kind. If key decision-makers or those closest to a particular problem cannot be present, then rearrange the meeting so that they can participate.
  3. Is a meeting (of any kind) really necessary? If the proposed meeting is about solving a problem, why not put details online – perhaps in a discussion forum – and invite ideas and contributions? Tap into the wisdom of your crowd. In a Web 2.0 world, individuals can publish their work and invite fellow knowledge workers to amend/expand/update/improve it (as one might with a wiki or shared documents) or to make comments or mark-ups that can be used to produce a new revision (the approach typically adopted by document-centric construction collaboration systems, for instance).
  4. Is a face-to-face meeting really necessary? Is the meeting location convenient for most participants? Particularly with the rise of tele-conferencing, it is not always necessary to meet face-to-face. Many issues can be discussed over the telephone (or Skype), perhaps augmented by using technology to share a desktop view of items under discussion. For example, tools such as WebEx Meeting Center, LiveMeeting and Glance allow people to share documents, view presentations and demonstrate software applications remotely over the internet, without travelling to a meeting room somewhere; similarly webinars can be used to present information to larger groups. Such online meetings save the time and expense of travel (and help reduce your carbon footprint). However, some participants may experience technical issues that hamper their effective participation, or may feel they are missing the opportunity to ask questions or have spontaneous one-to-one informal chats with other attendees (though, again, web 2.0 can help: I’ve seen Twitter and CoverItLive used as a ‘back channel’ for people to swap views, ask questions and suggest additional information during an online event).
  5. What about using video or webcams? Video-conferencing offers some advantages to online meetings insofar as viewers can see who’s speaking and perhaps discern additional meaning from gestures and body language, but it can be expensive. If high quality images and interactivity aren’t vital, then free tools such as Ustream can be used, taking sound and pictures from a standard webcam and streaming them over the internet (a technique used successfully at Be2camp last year). In a construction project context, webcams can be used effectively to show ongoing activity on a live construction site, with pictures shared (and archived) via a standard collaboration platform – again potentially reducing the requirement to visit sites simply to check on progress. Some architectural and interior design practices have also experimented with using Second Life as a virtual show-case for their designs, inviting clients and other stakeholders to view, fly-through and discuss online.
  6. How do we keep a record of the meeting? Traditionally, someone would be nominated to take minutes or write action notes of a meeting. Of course, if you are doing a tele- or video-conference or webinar, it is usually possible to record the event instead (and perhaps share it online), but attendees may still want a written summary of the discussion and/or its outcomes. Again, you could share the task: people use web 2.0 technologies to collaborate on producing meeting notes both in written form and as mind-maps (eg: using Bubbl.us). At larger events, if you’re using Twitter, hashtags are a convenient way to flag ‘Tweets’ so that they can be easily identified (this #cimcig search gives points  shared during recent CIMCIG events, for example).

Do you have any advice about how to organise more effective meetings (or avoid them altogether)? Have you used social media tools to good effect to organise a meeting or to make it more productive? Please let me know.

Update (30 March 2009): Useful advice from marketing guru Seth Godin.

Coming soon: Number three: “Cut administration”

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