Virtual Meetings: A manager's guide
Posted Jun 8, 2012, by Roy Speed
Email may have begun as a way for individuals to communicate, but we're increasingly using it to work in groups. The "virtual meeting" is a type of email that has emerged as a core business process.
You know this kind of email: the string of messages circulating among an entire group of employees as they try to hash out an issue or solve a problem, with the thread sometimes strung out over several days. -- We're raising the issue here because at our client companies, we've seen how these discussions can squander precious time, delay decisive action, and even devolve into a gossip klatch.
For the foreseeable future, whether we like it or not, we seem stuck with the virtual meeting email. Technology has produced alternatives to meeting in email, but employees seem unlikely to embrace them anytime soon. For years now, advocates of Enterprise 2.0 have been heralding the arrival of "social business," i.e., social media applications adapted for use inside company firewalls, to facilitate sharing of knowledge and information (e.g., internal wikis, blogs, virtual whiteboards, etc.). For the moment, though, such technologies have not been widely adopted, even where IT folk have set them up for the use of employees. The biggest obstacle seems to be employees' reluctance to desert the familiar (email) for the unfamiliar (e.g., a wiki). People steeped in such matters say that email is here to stay. (See also here.)
Our guide to efficient discussion
All managers know that groups can work effectively, efficiently, even creatively, but not without structure. They may not need a lot, but they certainly need some. And structure, you will notice, is exactly what's missing from our virtual meetings.
We suggest the following guidelines:
- Each discussion thread has an "owner." The owner can be someone with relevant responsibility, like a team leader, department manager, or supervisor, or he/she may be a subject-matter expert. The key is to have one.
- The owner structures the discussion. To ensure efficiency from the start, the owner gives structure to the discussion right at the outset with three critical decisions:
1) Defining the thread. The owner must define the topic or issue to be addressed: We're all here to solve the X problem. -- or: ... to devise ways of preventing Y. -- or: ... to nail down business requirements for Z.
2) Defining the participants. The owner confirms that the thread has the right participants -- and invites any missing parties to join.
3) Defining the desired outcome. The owner defines the result that will signal completion and allow the discussion to be closed, e.g., This thread will be closed when we've all agreed on a set of criteria... -- or: ... when we've designated a team to define the criteria.
- The owner keeps the discussion on track. As other topics and challenges arise -- and they will -- the owner will, first, assign any issue that warrants attention to a new thread with a new owner, and second, refocus the discussion on the topic at hand.
- The owner closes the thread. As soon as the desired outcome has been attained, the owner terminates the thread. Most important, the owner does not allow the thread to morph to a new topic and meander on.
- When email is not the right medium. Among the owner's most important duties is recognizing when the group has embarked upon a topic fraught with legal or regulatory implications. In such situations, the owner must move the discussion to a different medium. For sensitive topics, the problem with email is that it enshrines in permanent business records every stage of the discussion -- as well as every half-baked thought that occurs to anyone in the group. In a legal proceeding, such emails often prove a treasure trove for opposing counsel. Sound alternatives to email include meeting in a conference room or via conference call; each is more troublesome than email, but less fraught with risk.
To sum up, then, formalizing email discussions in the manner described above aids efficiency in two ways:
- Having a responsible owner ensures that someone is devoting the few minutes of up-front thinking work required to make the discussion productive.
- Having a clearly defined topic and desired outcome focuses the group's efforts -- and, on the flip side, fences off those efforts from other topics. Extraneous or gratuitous comments are exposed as, well, extraneous and gratuitous.
And gossip is simply not allowed.