Whenever I go on Twitter, it seems like Michelle is at a meeting or on her way to another meeting. It’s amazing the girl gets anything done with all those meetings! So I can completely understand her intense dislike for in-person meetings. I think everyone has been to meetings where they feel like they just lost an hour or two of their life for nothing. A few weeks ago I went to what was supposed to be a quick meeting on goal-setting that turned into a 90-minute complaint session instead. We all came out of it feeling frustrated that very little had been accomplished. But I do question what Michelle said about face-to-face meetings existing to keep power in the hands of those who have it because face-to-face meetings hide what really goes on and those with the power are afraid of the transparency that would result from online meetings. I just don’t see that. At least I haven’t seen it in my own personal experience. Perhaps some people don’t want public meetings or a transcript of meetings because they’re afraid of that sort of transparency, but I doubt that’s the reason why most groups keep meetings face-to-face. I do see that a lot of people are very stuck on the idea of having face-to-face meetings for things that could be better accomplished online just because that’s the way they’ve always done it or because they just aren’t comfortable with the new collaborative technologies.

Technology has made so much possible in terms of connecting to others and collaborating online. Collaborative technologies have become more cost-effective and more sophisticated. With tools like wikis and Google Docs and Spreadsheets, we can create documents asynchronously. With instant messaging, Voice over IP and web conferencing software we can communicate with others in real time. I have planned a lot of things online with people thousands of miles away. I love to tell people how Michelle, Dorothea, Karen, Amanda, Ellyssa and I planned Five Weeks to a Social Library using instant messaging, e-mail and a wiki. We never met in person and we never talked on the phone. And yet we planned what was a very involved online course. It was a beautiful thing.

There were a few factors that led to this success:

  1. We are all tech-savvy and comfortable with social tools.
  2. Most of us had met each other in person prior to this and some of us were friends.
  3. We were a relatively small group of people.
  4. Most of us can type quickly (which is essential to taking part in an IM discussion).
  5. A lot of the work we needed to do we did individually.
  6. Most of our meetings required very specific concrete decisions (what to call the course, how many weeks should it be, what topics to cover, etc.).

I think all of these factors made it very easy for us to meet and collaborate online. I don’t think that it would be so easy with a different group or a different task.

There are things lost in virtual meetings. Virtual meetings start when people come into the space and end when the formal discussion ends. They are often more focused. Things are mentioned in passing at a face-to-face meeting that become important. A lot of times, the casual discussions before and after meetings are actually more important than what goes on during the meeting. At a conference I went to on innovation, one of the speakers talked about how he discovered that he missed a lot before and after the video conference he had with geographically distant colleagues. The people who were in the same place geographically would talk about things casually before and after the meeting that were actually quite critical to the collaborative process. So he came up with the idea of eating lunch through videoconferencing with the other members of the team after the meeting. Face to face meetings enable the transfer of tacit knowledge much more easily than online meetings. I’m not saying that it’s not possible in the online medium, only that it takes a lot more to transfer that sort of knowledge online than just having tools that allow us to communicate online. I think many groups could have great meetings online, but there needs to be a real effort to replicate the things we get out of meetings that aren’t easily transferred into the online medium.

One of the comments on the very excellent post Michelle mentioned brought up another key limitation of virtual meetings:

I think there’s something more going on here that goes beyond relationship building and motivation, or lack of comfort/knowledge of web 2.0 tools, and that’s about trust. It’s about looking people in the eye, seeing their body language and being able to react appropriately to all those nonverbal cues. It’s the ability to react instantly when a question or concern is raised, rather than waiting for cumbersome written messages to make their way back and forth across the ether. As humans, we’re built with a lot of communication tools that we often aren’t aware we’re using.

I think that makes it particularly difficult for people who don’t know each other to have productive online meetings. You don’t know the person well enough to react to what they’re saying online. You don’t go out on a limb because you worry about being misinterpreted. I had a professor in graduate school who was disliked by many of my classmates because they thought she was mean and unsympathetic. She had a very dry wit and that often doesn’t come off well in chat. Since they’d never met her in person, they put all these assumptions (maybe right, maybe not) on her communications. Voice over IP is certainly better for communicating online than text chat, but it’s still hard to get an accurate read on people and the tenor of what they’re saying without looking at their body language.

There are so many things that we just don’t think to mention online or that we don’t mention to the right people. We used to have public service meetings about twice a semester or, at best, once a month. And we found that a lot of important stuff wasn’t getting discussed. Maybe someone would mention an issue to one or two people, but not to the right people or not in a forum where a decision would be made. We decided to start meeting each week to bring up things from the past week that require decisions or discussions. It’s just an opportunity to touch base on the things that maybe wouldn’t be the top priorities at a monthly meeting, but that need to be decided upon or discussed nevertheless.

There are also people who just don’t do well with online meetings. Just like some people have different learning styles, other people have different collaboration/communication styles. We have to respect the fact that many people prefer interacting face-to-face, and not just because they are afraid of radical transparency. I have a colleague, a staff member who is at the bottom of the organizational ladder, who just prefers to talk to people over sending e-mails. It’s the way she works best. We all have different preferences and competencies. We need to try to find a happy medium. While we can work to get people more comfortable with web technologies, there may always be people who are uncomfortable with it. I think it will become less of a problem with time, but right now, a large number of people out there are not comfortable with online meetings.

I think face-to-face meetings will always be needed to some extent, but there is a definite art to running a meeting effectively and it’s not an art that most people (including myself) have mastered. I’ve seen meetings get out of control. I’ve seen meetings meander without specific objectives. The person running a meeting needs to be able to keep everyone on task and that often isn’t easy when everyone has their own hidden agendas or axes to grind. Librarians should all take a class on facilitating a successful meeting. I know I would be thrilled to take one.

I completely agree with Michelle that there is a lack of assessment of the utility or success of an individual meeting and that sometimes, as Karen Schneider wrote “the meeting seems to be the work product.” So often, we go into meetings without a list of specific things that need to be decided upon or objectives, and sometimes even without an agenda. We will talk about things that require a decision, but won’t decide anything. I just got my annual evaluation which listed the committees I was on, not what was accomplished in them. It’s absolutely critical that we start focusing more on outcomes than on the meetings themselves.

I sometimes get frustrated with the slow pace of change in academia. I don’t like committees that don’t have a specific charge to make specific decisions and move toward something. However, I do think that face to face meetings are important and there will always be a place for them in the world of collaboration. I certainly don’t have all the answers and these are just my musings on the topic. Fortunately, there are a lot of smart people looking at these issues and hopefully we will be able to find ways to make online meetings more palatable to those who prefer f2f and make in-person meetings more fruitful and satisfying.