)Electronic Meeting Systems#

Electronic Meeting Systems

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Cross Platform Tools Rare

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by Joel Snyder for Network World (ed: J. Dix)

BNote: this is the article as I sent it into Network World,Estuck just barely into HTML. The published article is much smoother.EAlso, my Mac screws up quotes and apostrophes and hyphens, so they'll$look very strange in your browser. JIn any case, this article is copyright 1995 by Network World. jmsKMeetings are a way of life in every business. Meetings can be a source of Ftremendous frustration. Meetings are also costly: put six people in aGweekly staff meeting, and you've eaten up $10,000 worth of time. TotalJquality management, business process re-engineering, team management, andGother techniques of the 90's aren't helping---most of these techniquesJactually increase the number of meetings people attend. Because meetingsKare so expensive and so inefficient and so dissatisfying, it's no surpriseGthat there are lots of software developers working on tools to improve meetings.

OThese tools span a wide range of meeting assistance and support tasks. At the Olow end, software schedulers keep track of people, appointments, and resources Lto coordinate meeting times and places. In the middle are tools which help Lgroups by improving communications. This includes conferencing systems and Mbulletin board packages, which extend "meeting space" outside of the meeting Sroom by letting participants discuss issues without having to sit together. Other Omid-range tools are designed to assist communications during a meeting. Video Mand audio conferencing hardware can be integrated with personal computers to Slink people in diverse locations for a single meeting. Shared drawing and editing Ktools also help groups work on a single document or share a visual concept easily. 

QAt the high end are systems with much loftier goals: the complete reinvention of Ithe meeting process. Developers of these systems have developed ways of Jcompletely changing the way meetings are held, and they have numbers from Jcustomers proving massive and dramatic improvements in productivity. But Nthese benefits come at a cost---attendees must stop thinking of meetings as a Qwaste of time and start thinking of meetings as an opportunity to make decisions and share information. 

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Schedulers to Keep You On Track

GThe low end of the meeting support market focuses mainly on scheduling Mmeetings and managing calendars. Although there are many products available Ofor standalone use or which support only a single platform, only a few vendors Dhave taken an enterprise-wide approach to scheduling. Even so, any Norganization with truly disparate platforms will find it impossible to find a Pvendor willing to support all popular platforms for this relatively simple task.

KIn evaluating group scheduling systems, network managers must keep in mind Rthe underlying politics of scheduling. These are generally more important to the Tsuccess of a group scheduler than quality of user interface or performance. If the Ngroup scheduler cannot successfully emulate people’s behavior regarding their Iown personal calendar, then it will not be accepted into the workplace. OGroupware of this type must fit into the organization; it is not reasonable to Eexpect people to change the way they operate simply to accomodate an appointment scheduling program.

PIn the table below, group schedulers which support at least three platforms are &listed along with contact information 

-Table*

Spreading the Meeting Room Around

PTraditional meetings are same-time, same-place activities—everyone has to be in Ithe same room at the same time. Software and hardware which extends the Mmeeting room across both time and space can substitute for some face-to-face Gmeetings, empower people in remote locations, and improve face-to-face ,meetings by making everyone better prepared.

QThe oldest alternative to face-to-face meetings is computer conferencing systems O(sometimes called bulletin boards, although purists make a distinction between Othe two). These conferencing systems grew out of multi-user systems and often :support both microcomputer and dumb terminal interfaces. 

NMost conferencing systems do little more than let people exchange information Nand follow a single message and its associated discussion. The largest multi-Kplatform conferencing system of this type is the Usenet News system. With Lliterally dozens of public-domain and commercial "news readers," and a good Pselection of minicomputer-based servers, a simple conferencing system can truly Kencompass all corporate computing platforms, including dumb terminals, all Cmicrocomputer systems, on up to X window system terminals. Other Gcommercial products which support multiple platforms include Digital's L(800/DIGITAL) DEC Notes, Lotus' (800/522-6752) Notes, and Pacer Software's (800/722-3702) PacerForum.

HLotus Notes is one of the few products which can be extended to include Qadditional group conferencing facilities, such as voting on issues, surveys, and Nanonymity. Conferencing systems with these facilities built-in are found in Hresearch projects more than commercial products, such as the New Jersey HInstitute of Technology’s EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System) conferencing system. 

KThe computer-equivalent of an audio-conference or video-conference is also Pavailable. Although some tools aim to replace face-to-face meetings with group Stype-fests, only certain narrowly defined meetings will benefit from these tools. NBecause typing is so slow compared with talking, a traditional audio or video Pconference is much more cost-effective than asking meeting participants to type Gin their comments and thoughts rather than simply speaking them. Eden ISystems Corp's (800/779-6338) The Meeting Room does replace face-to-face Lmeetings, but supplements them with audio-conferencing capabilities, either Gthrough a PC-based software/hardware combination or via a normal audio conference.

LGroup editing and drawing tools fill a different niche. These are meant to Nsupplement face-to-face meetings or audio conferences by letting participants Oshare a single view of a document or a picture. Group Logic's (800/476-8781) PAspects is a Mac-only version of this which lets networked systems share in the Jtasks of editing documents and pictures. Their Mac and Windows product, QWhiteboard, gives cross-platform compatibility at a price---only shared drawings Kare supported. A variation on this theme is available from Farallon, Inc K(510/814-5000) in their Timbuktu package, which lets Windows and Mac users 8share the same screen and look at the same documents. 



Making Meetings Better

GIf you want to spend less time in unproductive meetings, and have your Qmeetings result in better decisions with stronger consensus, Jay Nunamaker, Jr. Rhas a deal for you. He's not a sales person or a software developer. He's a man Mwith a vision: better meetings. For over a decade, he's pushed his ideas in Hacademia (he brought the University of Arizona’s Management Information QSystems Department from an idea to one of the top five in the US, serving as its Jchairman), with businesses, and with government. Along the way, teams of Kprogrammers working with him have tested, refined, and rebuilt software to Fimprove the meeting process. In 1989, he founded Ventana Corporation M(800/368-6338) along with long-time colleagues Ben Martz and Bill Saints to Hcommercialize the software he had helped design. When Ventana released JGroupSystems V in 1992 and GroupSystems for Windows this summer, years of Jexperiments were codified in a software package with one aim: "generating Dmuch better, faster decisions," according to Lynn Lyle of Ventana. 

NGroupSystems isn't a single package. It's actually a suite of software tools N(sixteen in the DOS version, fewer in the Windows version) which automate and Henhance many of the processes which occur in meetings. A meeting using EGroupSystems requires a personal computer for each participant and a N"facilitator," someone to lead the meeting and choose which GroupSystems tool *is most appropriate to the task at hand. 

MFor example, suppose you want to have a meeting to help decide on a new name Qfor your company. In the GroupSystems world, the meeting would look like this. OFirst, participants in the meeting would brainstorm ideas using the Electronic NBrainstorming tool. Each participant would enter as many ideas as they could Pthink of during a defined time period, say 10 minutes. As ideas were typed in, MGroupSystems would shuffle them around and send them to other participants. GBy seeing the ideas of others, presumably, you’d come up with your own possibilities. 

BGroupSystems advocates claim two advantages over manual meetings: Lparticipants can type in more ideas more quickly than anyone could possibly Kwrite them down because everyone is typing at the same time. Each idea is Sevaluated on its own merits, rather than based on who said it. Because tools like JElectronic Brainstorming are anonymous, people who are normally afraid to Ubring up opinions in a meeting will be able to bring their best ideas without fear. ?In most professional meetings, this anonymity is rarely abused.

IOnce brainstorming was over, the facilitator would use another tool, the PCategorizer, to put ideas into different buckets based on group opinion. Since Ibrainstorming would likely have generated hundreds of ideas, it would be Jimportant to narrow them down into broad categories, such as "favorites," A"maybes," and "disliked." In this phase, normal discussion would prevail---Fexcept the process of sorting the ideas would be assisted by computer.

IFinally, participants would be asked to vote on the ideas. GroupSystems Rsupports seven different kinds of voting. In this example, participants might be Jasked to rank their top ten favorite ideas. GroupSystems would tally the Manonymous votes present totals on a screen in the front of the room. Before Nanyone left the one-hour meeting, the top ten names chosen by the group would <be available for further research and final decision-making.



Changing the Face

KGroupSystems does not augment existing meetings. When a company buys into EGroupSystems, they are buying much more than a software package. To Lproperly use the system, facilitators must be trained in maximizing meeting Fproductivity using these tools---because GroupSystems changes the way Mcompanies hold meetings. Ventana's Lyle calls it a "safe environment" which <elicits the maximum potential of each meeting participant. 

OBringing in GroupSystems is not a trivial investment. GroupSystems requires a KPC in front of each user, Windows or DOS, a LAN (any popular microcomputer MLAN package will work) to link them together, and a facilitator's station to Scontrol the meeting tools. GroupSystems also uses a shared screen at the front of Ithe room which has to be large enough for everyone to see. With a base Psoftware and training cost of $25,000, building a meeting room for GroupSystems usually costs about $100,000. 

RGroupSystems doesn’t require a dedicated room. In theory, it's possible to bring Ltogether a bunch of laptop PCs with network cards, stick an LCD panel on an Doverhead projector, and hold a GroupSystems-assisted meeting. Most Kcompanies, though, decide to allocate a space where GroupSystems is always Pavailable. If anyone can use the meeting room at any time, the reasoning goes, 1we'll maximize use of the equipment and software.

QWith that kind of price tag, ROI (Return on Investment) is a big question. When Owill GroupSystems pay off its high capital costs? Nunamaker has that licked. OOver a dozen PhD theses at Universities in the US and Europe have been written Mlooking at one aspect or another of GroupSystems, showing where it works and Jwhere it doesn't. Almost all of them found substantial benefits to using GroupSystems in meetings. 

BAsk Ventana, and they'll pull out studies showing a payoff almost Pinstantaneously. The Army claims that they saved at least $150,000 in a single Gsession, completing a month-long project in a single week. Go to the OGroupSystems User's Group meeting (the sixth annual one will be in Tucson this OMarch), and you can see Ford, Bellcore, Chevron, Finnair, Coopers and Lybrand, Ithe NSA, IBM, the World Bank, Unisys, Cigna, along with the Army and the JMarines explain how they used GroupSystems to hold better meetings, reach -consensus faster, and make quality decisions.



What's the Catch?

GGroupSystems has its share of rough edges. The Microsoft Windows [tm] Nversion, shipping since mid-summer, has its share of bugs always present in a JV1.0 product. GroupSystems for Windows also is missing some of the tools Mpresent in the MS-DOS version. More importantly, though, are the conceptual problems. 

BGroupSystems has always focused on the meeting process itself. A EGroupSystems meeting can generate prodigous amounts of information. OUnfortunately, there is little continuity from one meeting to the next and few Ntools to save the output of a meeting into the corporate memory. Ventana now Gships tools to import and export information from Lotus Notes, but the Kconceptual ties between between what happens in a meeting and what happens Fbetween meetings are not part of the GroupSystems model. Although a NGroupSystems "session" can extend over many physical meetings, the process of Lintegrating GroupSystems into a larger computer-assisted decision-making or design effort is not defined. 

GNevertheless, GroupSystems has converts from all over the globe. Many Iorganizations are moving from individual management to team management. LWhen this happens, efficient meetings become crucial to the success of the Morganization itself. Ventana's GroupSystems has become an accepted part of 'corporate culture at hundreds of sites.

IWhile GroupSystems works for large sites with deep pockets, schedulers, Helectronic mail, and conferencing systems can work in even the smallest Ncompanies. The idea is the same everywhere: spend less time making decisions and more time implementing them.

Joel Snyder Cis a Senior Analyst for Opus One (Tucson, Arizona). His PhD, from Kthe University of Arizona, had nothing to do with GroupSystems. He can be Greached at 602-324-0494 or via email to jms@Opus1.COM.