Meetings, Meetings Everywhere and Not a Decision in Sight

I was wondering when my lack of ideas, and lack of time to read feeds, was going to cease and a topic would come along that requires a string of crazy from me. The perfect opportunity came this morning. On the Bamboo Project Blog, Michele Martin talks about one of the things I love to hate, the f2f meeting.

Why do we get meetings wrong? More pointedly, why do we insist on having meetings for things that are much easier to do on the web?

Michele’s reasons include the following:

They’ve always done it this way.
They haven’t moved into that web-enabled mindset of asking if it’s something that could be better accomplished with online tools.
They have (in my mind, unfounded) faith that when people meet, there is actually a structured transfer of information.

I think she has forgotten a very important reason why face to face meetings persist. I think it is easier to hide the process with f2f meetings. If people do not know the process, it is much harder to argue against the result. It is a way to keep the power in the hands who have it and out of those on the bottom.

Meetings from Despair, Inc.
Image from Despair, Inc. the creators of the wonderfully hilarious Demotivators.

When you hold a meeting over chat, develop an idea on a wiki, discuss solutions to problems on a discussion board, or collectively edit a document, you leave little traces of the process everywhere. There are transcripts, different versions of documents, and there is an actual record of who made what comment and contributed what material.

In a f2f meeting, we rely on a person to take notes. We all know that Meeting Minutes are nothing more then a list of decisions and action items. Meeting minutes do not reflect the decision process, the tension a topic may have induced, or the crazy idea that got thrown on the table and very quickly was swept under the rug. Meeting minutes are the sanitized version of what really happened. Sometimes, they are so sanitized as to be completely useless to those who were not in attendance.

Conducting committee work on the web can be dirty, it can be chaotic, and, in most instances, it is open for all the world to see. Moving committee work to the web is the picture of radical transparency and that scares people. Big organizations hate admitting failure and process can look like failure.

We have to get over the idea that conducting our work in the open is bad. We have to get over the idea that f2f meetings are the most productive way to work. They are not. They never will be. Get over it already.

I believe the reason why some of our larger institutions are so slow reduce f2f meetings and increase the use of web applications is that the web will make them be accountable and transparent. *cough* ALA Council *cough* I am picking on ALA, but ALA Council is far and away not the only group guilty of pushing back on this.

I have found myself asking this a lot lately, but what are we scared of? What keeps us from doing this? If you are inclined to say no about anything, what are you scared of? Can it be overcome?

Forget creating a committee or task force to look into moving things online. Just have a conversation at your next f2f meeting. Set a time limit for the discussion. Choose a tool. Make a plan. Leave the meeting with the action item, “We will start using X to have discussions prior to meetings, ask questions, debate solutions, and draft documents and policies. If this does not work as we intended, we will discuss it, via the new system, and try something different. Department (or committee) members will give ongoing feedback and the group will be open to suggestions.”

Moving work online means that our f2f time will be more productive and meaningful. It also means we will be accountable for the work we do or do not do.

–Jane, off to a meeting