We may never attain a participatory democracy and it may not be desirable to eliminate our system of representative governance, but we are moving toward engaging many more people on important issues. Town hall meetings are increasing, expanding and addressing more issues. (See “Listening to the City” below.)
Innovative facilitation and meeting design techniques allow us to consider working with larger groups and more complex agenda, but the reality of peoples busy lives and dispersed locations continues to make it difficult to schedule meetings and get things done. Many meetings end in a rush to cover final topics and reach less than desirable outcomes; under the threat that it would be months before the group can reconvene. Typically, multi-party, multi-issue dialogues go on for a very long time, with multiple meetings, and sometimes lasting years.
Ecology of Meeting Communications
Traditionally the term “meeting” refers to Face to Face (F2F or ftf), in the same room, same time events. There is no denying the power of being physically in each other’s presence, however a conference call or an online forum discussion or even three or more people carbon copied in an email discussion can also be considered a meeting, and interestingly enough all of these interactions cause public policy concerns around “Open Meeting Rules”. In a broad sense meetings take on a whole array of different forms and media.
Every medium of meeting communication has advantages and disadvantages, as well as very personal preferences. Each medium of communication has optimal process applications and drawbacks. In other words, they work well for some things and not so well for others.
Face to face physical meetings are probably the best means of establishing rapport. They can also be intimidating or overpowering. A well-dressed, well-poised articulate speaker can exert great influence and intimidate their audience. Some people cannot image getting anything done unless the meeting is in a room. To them, non-verbal communication is essential. Others find it difficult to express themselves in a group, or in the moment and non-verbal clues slip by over their head. Factors of physical appearance, shyness, gender, and intimidation make it more effective for them to communicate with the written word, or on the phone. Some people cannot get a word in edgewise but have much more to contribute if they can write their comments.
Email or E-forums work well for developing an agenda and transferring facts and figures, but for negotiations, they can be more conducive to deceitful or emboldened behavior. A well-written statement, contemplated outside the heat of the moment and the gaze of the group can be very powerful. Sometimes people need time to think. Crafting ideas and selecting words in private can move discussions forward dramatically.
Conference calls may be best used to confirm agreements, maintain momentum of an online discussion, or update the group on progress since the last meeting. They also have difficulty in keeping everyone’s attention. It is too easy to put the phone on speaker and mute and then clean the office or browse the Internet.
People have preferences in how they meet and communicate. They also have differing capacities to use technology, spend time and to travel. Understanding these capacities and preferences can be very helpful in designing communication processes.
Travel as Communication Technology
Distance, public transit access, parking, ease of finding the location, centrality of location or multiple dispersed locations are all factors which need to be considered in the site selection process.
Meeting location has an additional aspect of home court advantage, personal energy imbalance of travelers of greatest distance, or jet lag. Fear and cost of flying or any mode of travel has impact on the group. Should a central location equally distant from everyone be selected or a location nearest the greatest number of participants. Access for the differently-abled must also be considered. Travel factors can influence the success of a meeting.
Room/Place as Communication Technology
Comfortable seating, tables, lighting, acoustics, fresh air, and ambience all play into the success of a meeting. The power of place is becoming ever more clear. Feng Shui is reminding us that place affects our psyche. The “shape of the table” takes a leap into placing the table in a room and the room in a location. A great meeting place might not be a room. Imagine holding a meeting on a bluff overlooking the Ocean, or in a Redwood grove. Will the outcome be different?
Projectors, screens, Internet access, phones, voting/polling technology, and even walls on which to hang flip charts are all considerations for a place-based meeting. Actually the aspects to be considered for a meeting facility are quite extensive.
Remote Communication Technology
Mail, fax, phone, Internet, television, video, and radio can all play a role in meetings. Telephones have a range of conference call options and the Internet can deliver in the forms of email, Web Forums, Blog Websites, shared documents by attachments, instant messages, Web Casting, and CHAT.
There is a great range of ways these communication mediums can be interwoven. Send a video of a presentation by postal mail or over the Internet. Conference calls can be arranged so that a large group can dial in and listen and send in their questions by Instant Message or email. We can add video to a conference call or combine video over the Internet. Broadcast meetings over a public access television station or a radio with questions and comments from participants through email or Instant Message. Radio, television, and newspaper releases and interviews can also be a part of an effective communications array.
We often hear “Well not everyone can…” Or a “not everyone has access to…” and therein lies the point of this article. Before we dismiss the possibilities, lets find out where people are geographically, technically, and personally and what capacities are available. A communication assessment can be done for just about any size group. As stakeholders are identified they can be polled for their communications capabilities and preferences. An assessment tool can be created for any group situation.
An initial portion of the assessment can be derived from addresses of the stakeholders. Home and work addresses can be gathered. Possibly meetings can be located to reduce back and forth after work traveling. This information can help identify optimal geographical meeting places. Perhaps a series of smaller meetings bringing the facilitators and primary stakeholders to remote locations would work best for a widely dispersed group. Where can they meet? What are their preferences? Grange Halls, community-meeting places, churches, and schools are all possible meeting places.
Time and Timing
If stakeholders are participating in the process on their own time and outside the framework of their work life, it might be interesting to know if they have an opportunity for release time for workday meetings. Do they have school age children, are they single parents? Do they work weekends or after hour shifts? Do they currently meet on the issue at hand or a related set of issues? Are they willing to make or take the time to come to a meeting? And if they cannot make the meetings, do they still wish to participate?
When? Teachers scrambling to end the school year may not participate in a late May/early June meeting. Summer vacations, or harvest time may reduce attendance. What is going on in the lives of people you want to participate? Are they missing from the process simply because they can’t fit meetings into their schedules? Of course, perfect consideration is unlikely, but knowing why people are not at meetings is better than assuming a lack of interest. If meetings can be flexible it is helpful to gather preferred dates and times.
It seems to be a safe assumption that everyone has a phone, but it is a question that still needs to be asked. Do they have a cell phone? Are they outside the local calling range? If it is a long distance call for some participants, perhaps a toll free number can be used.
Internet access, bandwidth and comfort with using the computer and the Internet is valuable information to know about individuals in the group. Do they use email, instant messages, chat, video or voice over Internet? Are they currently on a list serve or other form of group communication?
Do they have a television? Cable or Satellite TV? Radio? For some remote participants, they may not be able to pick up a Public access radio or TV station.
Personal Communications Style
It may be helpful to know if a participant wishes to make comments or just to be informed and listen. Are they comfortable speaking in a large group, a small group or would they prefer to make written comments before, during, or after the time-based meetings. Are they comfortable communicating on the phone?
An interesting anecdote occurred in an experiment in which a participant was asked to be on a video conference call. It seemed fine until it sunk in that he would be recorded on camera in front of a group. Camera shyness quickly became a factor in the communication event and it quickly became a non-video conference call. We often assume that video information will enhance the quality of the dialogue, but in fact camera shyness can actually be detrimental to the process.
Using the Knowledge Gathered
While, clearly, all the information gathered cannot be accommodated, it certainly can be used to design a more effective process. It is unlikely that any public meeting process will occur in only one modality of communication. All meetings are hybrid communication processes. Use the time before, between, and after F2F meetings effectively.
With the information gathered in a communication assessment, a process can be designed which makes the most effective use of the available and preferred meeting technologies.
Designing the Agenda for a Multi-media Process
An early phase of a process may be a face to face, place and time based meeting. What can be sent to participants ahead of time to make that meeting most effective? A great deal of information sharing can be done through mail, fax, website or email. At the meeting it may be most effective to do ice breaking and rapport building activities, perhaps sharing food. Established rapport is probably the greatest indicator of success in an online dialogue. If the dialogue will continue in an online discussion format, set that expectation in the meeting, introduce the technology and provide training if needed. Assure the parties that facilitation will continue and be consistent throughout the process, no matter the medium.
Create fluid and comprehensive transitions from f2f, online and conference calls. Use websites and email to post the agenda and minutes of the meetings and conference calls.
Create links from the Websites to Discussion Forums. Structure the Areas of the Forum to correspond to agenda items.
Use a digital camera to photograph participants and create a space on the website for a participant gallery. Participants can refer to these photos as they read the dialogue. Putting a face with the words is often helpful in fostering understanding.
You can also digitally photograph flip chart pages and post the images on the Web site. Often having the actual chart pages with the creative work of the recorder is more effective than just transcriptions of the pages. Building Websites is no longer a slow and tedious process requiring advanced technical skills. New technologies make it as easy as creating a document or a flyer.
Be flexible, use hybrid systems, broadcast or webcast meetings, respond to Internet questions and comments during the meetings. If online dialogue hits a lull or conflicts arise, a conference call can boost energy or calm the parties until the next opportunity to meet F2F.
Try to be aware of side bar communications that might be occurring in other medium. In a city traffic dialogue, the City was surprised to learn that special interest and neighborhood groups were using list serves to coalesce their interests and positions and in some cases they were communicating across groups between the scheduled meetings. Parties might never consider using the phone, but may feel very comfortable sending an email.
If someone cannot make a meeting or someone does not have access to the Internet, we can find ways to keep them engaged and informed. In my neighborhood network the newsletter is sent electronically and individuals in the group take on the responsibility of printing a copy and delivering it to someone who is not on email. The interesting effect created is that Senior citizens get visited more often because the person delivering the newsletter checks in with them when they drop off the printed newsletter.
The assessment information can be used here to determine people who may need delivery and those who can do it most conveniently.
As technology continues to improve, become faster and more ubiquitous, modern process management requires intentional, informed, fluid, flexible and optimal use of all means of communication.
A group known as America Speaks designed and moderated a Town Hall meeting to discuss the re-building of The World Trade Center.
4300 people came together in New York with 500 facilitators and they spent a day discussing what would be appropriate development. Participants were arranged into tables of ten, each with a facilitator and a Computer scribe, each computer was connected to a wireless network and each participant had a voting pad connected to the whole system. This was a very well facilitated meeting using the latest technologies. There was also a secondary parallel process held in online Forum technologies. Unfortunately this was not a follow on, but a parallel later process. It may have been interesting to have the online discussion be a part of the overall process.
Imagine those tables, not in the New York Javits Center, but in homes and meeting rooms across a wide geographical area. The Computer scribe may not send it wirelessly in the moment, but the ideas and concerns of the group could be sent to a central network for consolidation. The meeting may take several weeks rather than several hours. The possibilities are great for many people to be involved in creating outcomes they can buy into.
A likely and logical extension of both Open Meeting Laws and Americans with Disabilities Act will be that all public meetings will be recorded in audio and video as well as transcribed text and made available online immediately and indefinitely. Right now this may seem daunting, but audio and video files in digital format, as well as email and text conferencing are easily transmitted and stored and all can be archived for posterity on DVDs and online.