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June 11, 2009

Chris Elmitt:Virtual meetings are alive and well

Pete Roythorne’s recent article ‘Where have all the virtual meetings gone’ revealed that Second Life hasn’t galvanised our screens in quite the way predicted a year ago.  In stating that that technology had dropped off the agenda, it was a logical enough conclusion to suggest that Second Life was another casualty of the economic nosedive. This is rather ironic, when you think that one of the key selling points of virtual meetings is the saving in the direct and indirect costs of organising live events.

As meetings facilitators we have surveyed hundreds of delegates for ideas on minimising the economic impact of events, and sure enough, many of them quoted virtual meetings as The Way Forward.  What we found interesting, however, was that when asked who was planning to ‘go virtual’ during the months ahead - answer came there none.  Or barely a whisper of assent.  The consensus seems to be that a lot of people just don’t know how to go about it.

Which is not to say that the concept has stalled altogether.  In fact our experience is that there is huge demand for virtual meetings.  As one COO put it succinctly: “My need to communicate and meet with staff has increased massively, but my budget to do this is now zero.” 

Engaging delegates virtually

Our findings are that virtual meetings are taking place, but usually at a much more pedestrian level, and in many cases with limited success.  The greatest challenge with virtual meetings lies in establishing the level of engagement and participation that would be expected from the live group dynamic.  Even if people maintain the discipline to attend, a multitude of distractions will reduce their levels of concentration so that they are effectively only ‘half there’.  The result is diluted value for hosts and delegates alike.

It seems that planners, particularly those with strong logistical expertise, are not applying the same degree of professionalism to the virtual format that they put into their live events.  ‘Virtual’ poses very specific challenges: ensuring people ‘attend’; getting them wholly engaged; generating information-share and meaningfully extending the life of the meeting.  And planners generally follow the presentation format that they would use for a face-to-face meeting – and that’s just too long and unwieldy. Content needs to be condensed down into a much more succinct package for virtual audiences.

Over the past few months we have been developing a format with one of our clients that we believe has addressed these issues.

The client is a global IT solutions provider which, for its largest strategic account, deploys 60 staff throughout the world. The core account team based in the UK was keen to complement its existing three-day conference with more regular, light-touch opportunities to interact.

Short and sweet

The solution took the form of a monthly virtual meeting. Because not all offices have video conferencing equipment, the format had to involve basic phone and web access. The hosts wanted to ensure participants contributed ideas as well as passively listening, so two-way communication was a must.  It was also felt that the shorter the session, the more participants would attend and the greater their level of concentration and engagement would be achieved.

From that brief came a fast-paced, one hour radio show in which main presenters are interviewed by a meeting host on a set of pre-determined (and prepared) topics.

This quickly proved to be an effective medium for disseminating messages but experience revealed that with more than 10 participants on a call, it was unlikely that they would contribute ideas, voice concerns or pose questions.

Crystal provided a mechanism for delegates to enter ideas anonymously on a range of topics, as well as to vote on key issues via a simple web-based interface. In practice, during these one hour calls, participants contribute up to 50 ideas, challenges and questions, which the host puts to the main speakers.

Radio times
The balance of unanswered questions can then be addressed as part of the post-call communication. This is wrapped into a podcast of the discussions, together with a transcript of delegate contributions with answers to outstanding questions.

After each call, we conduct post event analysis with a selection of delegates to further refine the format and collect topics for future calls.

So far we have run 10 of these virtual meetings and have gleaned some valuable learnings, which are helping us to refine the format for that particular client.  But we have learned enough to be confident that this is a highly effective solution for organisations that have the need but not the time or resources to arrange regular live meetings, especially for pan-European or global groups.

Second Life may not yet be the virtual meeting of choice, but there are still effective ways of communicating and meeting with staff without resorting to business travel or raising eyebrows in the Boardroom about ‘unnecessary events’.

Chris Elmitt, managing director, Crystal Interactive

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