Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending a virtual, but hands-on workshop on Planning and Leading Exceptional Virtual Meetings. The session reminded me of the importance of conscious planning for effective meetings of all types. Meetings are very expensive and we must carefully mix the technology tools, organization practices, and people together to make them worth their cost. Summary of our session, from theNew Ways of Working Network (sponsors of the workshop):

The workshop was designed and led by virtual collaboration experts Nancy Settle-Murphy and Julia Young. Participants learned skills and techniques to help them design and facilitate productive virtual meetings. Working in teams, we attacked two problem-solving exercises and shared many ideas. At the end of our 90-minute session, we had generated 22 pages of ideas for improving virtual meetings-- all with no note-taker. By's virtual documentation tool, notes grew organically as participants typed comments, questions, links, etc.

Nancy and Julia provided valuable insights, and extracted still more, from this fairly experienced crowd. At least two of us cut our teeth in the 80s usingGroupSystems, an early participant in the electronic meeting system space. Many of us facilitate meetings professionally and/or consult on virtual work. Still, I believe everyone learned something during the session. For me it was interesting to reflect on the changes to the technology and our use of such systems. The picture above is from the University of Arizona. Much of the early research, including my own, took place there and at the University of Minnesota.  In the 1990s an electronic meeting meant a purpose-built room filled with computers, multiple highly-trained facilitators, and DOS-based software. The meetings were generally specially organized around a clear goal with extensive planning. It was a big deal to bring your organization to this facility and this triggered a thoughtful approach to the day (or days). The majority of the events were face-to-face --- people used the room to augment their face--to-face meeting capabilities. We still have the highly-trained facilitators, but as you can see from the site, the computers have nicely worked their way into the background. A good meeting still has a clear goal and extensive planning, but I expect the majority of technologically augmented meetings are now virtual rather than face-to-face. We were all teleconferenced in (I was on Skype) and using our own computers. Nancy and Julia had given us asynchronous pre-work that both let us get familiar with the technology tool and start engaging in the process. I was struck by how our conversation has shifted from the technology features discussions of the 1990s (anonymous/identified comments, whether executives could be expected to type on a keyboard, value of a big screen at the front of the room) to the process of planning and executing the collaboration. Certainly we studied those issues in the 90s, but they remain the main issues today. When technology was discussed on Wednesday, it was about how to push it further into the background (how to identify which caller has the static, how to find collaboration tools that are less intrusive). We need better ways for highlighting the meeting planning and organization imperative. Thetechnology is pretty good and the people in our meetings are becoming more expert at engaging with the new tool of the day (MySpace to Facebook to...). But we still need to find ways to make the value of planning and organization clear. How many meetings did you attend last month with no agenda? How many meetings did you attend where you weren’t sure why you’d been invited?  Meetings are expensive. Meetings are also valuable if they are used at the right time and for the right purpose. One of the participants asked, “What if meetings are the wrong construct?” That was a great question -- and very tightly tied to the value of planning and organization. How to design a meeting is important after you have found that you need a meeting to move ahead on the work itself. Once the meeting decision has been made, then all three of technology tools, organizational practice, and the people must be considered, weighed, and worked into a powerful outcome. How do you decide when a meeting is necessary (face-to-face or virtual)? ----- In closing, some ground-rules used by our facilitators (check out,, and for other excellent ideas):

  • Come prepared to focus on our task at hand – remove distractions, let others know that you are out of the office
  • Get comfortable – have drinks and snacks at hand
  • Use a phone headset – this will save a sore neck – or a speaker phone if you are alone in a quiet area
  • Each take responsibility for our own participation – be fully present and join in
  • Keep phone OFF mute (unless the dog starts barking) – be ready to jump into the conversation
  • Speak your name before you make your point – we don’t have name tags
  • Help make this fun and engaging – it is hard work facilitating a group of 20 people!

They also sent out a “class photo” of pictures we’d provided in our bios.