In 2007 I wrote the first version of this post. Three years and many comments later, many of the same issues are on the table... Laptops don't kill meetings, inattention kills meetings. Mistrust kills meetings. Bullet points kill meetings. One-to-many information transfer without follow-on discussion/decision-making/action kills meetings. That said, are laptops, smartphones, and tablets avenues to distraction? Certainly. Checking email, sport scores, or working on a project that is late is a temptation if you have the tools available -- and if the meeting isn't providing value.
Systems savvy can help us think about new ways of working given we have always-on access. I often talk about technology first (following the TOP -- technology, organization, people -- checklist), but in this case I'll kick-off with the organizational issues given the leverage they provide. What are the roles in the meeting? Who is attending -- and how? Is everyone face-to-face or is it a hybrid form with some people attending virtually? What is the goal of the meeting? (Thanks to Lynne Cooper for inspiring this prior post.) Should you go to this meeting or do you have other more high-priority issues and the meeting can go on without you? Could you just attend for part of the meeting? If you're the host, is a meeting the best form of work for this task?
Huge number of organizational issues that may influence who attends and how -- following a hard look at whether or not the meeting should take place. Careful consideration of these issues may reduce the number of meetings you attend or run, reducing the conflict around whether or not people have their laptops open.... People: What human and personal dimensions are in play when we have laptops and Internet access in a meeting or presentation? Be honest with yourself. Sean, an MBA student, recently provided a great comment to my 2007 post. An excerpt:
A couple of my instructors have instituted rules on what constitutes acceptable use during class, but very few actually enforce it. I do not bring my laptop to class because the temptation to do things other than taking notes is too great. So I prefer to take notes the old fashioned way. It works well for me.
Two main issues -- Sean's instructors are letting the class down by having rules but not enforcing them and Sean is showing systems savvy by having the personal insight to make good design choices around his own tools and behavior. Besides being honest about yourself, be honest about your audience, but also open minded. While this Southpark clip about out of control cell phones in an elementary school class may have aspects of truth (doesn't most good comedy have some connection to reality?), surely our colleagues have more control. Though perhaps not. Again from a comment to the prior post:
As a professional manager, if one of my staff is on his/her laptop while in my meetings, I can’t tell if they’re taking notes, researching, doing email, or playing games. Well, actually I can – when I say “John, what do you think?” and get back a blank stare or half-answer, I know you’re not paying attention to the meeting. That really limits your ability to progress in my organization. Same is true for phone meetings, by the way.
And finally, the technology: Physical features of technology play a role in how the technologies are perceived. The form factor may make a difference. For example, Steve Rubel blogged about his early experiences with his Apple iPad. When I quoted him earlier, I highlighted this point "A tablet computer changes the dynamic because everyone can tell you are taking notes", versus, I assume, playing FarmVille, checking Facebook, or handling emails from another project. Cross-platform note/info capture tool provider Evernote has experience with these issues and has taken the side of the notetakers in meetings. They make available the stickers shown above. (That particular one is stuck to my laptop. I may be adding another to my iPhone now that I can connect my Bluetooth keyboard.)
But systems savvy is more than just considering each of technology, organizations, and people. Systems savvy goes beyond in terms of designing intertwined systems where these three dimensions work together for success. For example, we need to be proactive about how we plan and run meetings and how meetings fit into projects.
We also need to be proactive as meeting attendees. Just having a laptop in the meeting doesn't mean you or your meeting collaborators will gain value -- even when people are taking notes. The notes need to be group notes in some way, either as a consolidation or a single source (ideally that was on the screen during the meeting so corrections could be made on the fly). Hmmm. What about presenting from a wiki that is annotated by someone other than the lead as the meeting goes along? You could pull this off using Google Docs or any other multiparty-editable wiki, or even just presenting from within the edit mode of PowerPoint and using the notes section to annotate.
In settings where no norms have been set and I have the only laptop/smartphone out (I'm an attendee not the lead in this scenario, or norms would have been set), I've learned to announce my intentions, offer to project my notes for all to see, or to post the notes to a shared site after the meeting. Use your systems savvy to evolve your meeting process and outcomes.
What norms have developed in your own organizations? Are they helping you get the most value out of your systems of technology, organizational practice, and peoples' time?