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Have I Died and Gone to Meeting Heaven?

"Technology won't get rid of meetings. But it can make them more effective."

I have seen the meeting of the future and it works.

In a conference room at Christian Brothers University — no meetings from hell here — a rolling campus 10 minutes from downtown Memphis, 25 executives from Federal Express are about to start a meeting dedicated to, well, how to have better meetings. The mood is not upbeat. Richard Collard, senior manager of network operations, is already feeling meeting-ed out. "We just seem to meet and meet and meet and we never seem to do anything," he complains. Susan Baker, a colleague of Collard's, seconds those sentiments: "Meetings are our middle name. The least productive ones are when there are too many people, especially when there are dominant personalities."

But this meeting is meant to be different: fast, focused, participatory, decisive. It certainly feels different. For one thing, the room is specifically designed for technology-enabled meetings. Facilitator Jana Markowitz, founder of The Collective Mind, a consulting firm that specializes in collaborative meeting design, sits in the front of the room at a computer workstation beneath a big screen. Additional workstations, connected over a local area network, are spaced around a large U-shaped table where the meeting participants sit. The computers are running GroupSystems V software from Ventana Corporation.

The meeting is carefully scripted; Markowitz takes the agenda very seriously. It's also strangely quiet, a big reason why things stay on schedule. Thanks to the software, there are few distractions, digressions, or diatribes. Markowitz poses an agenda item, asks for debate, and the participants begin typing rather than arguing.

The meeting begins with an electronic check-in. The software's "mood meter" allows everyone to rate, on a scale from 1 to 10, whether FedEx has too many meetings. The results aren't projected onto the screen until everyone has voted, perhaps to avoid the bandwagon effect. Not surprisingly, though, a bandwagon forms. Meetings aren't very popular in Memphis; an awful lot of "10"s appear on the screen.

Next comes brainstorming. Markowitz asks the group to identify reasons why meetings go bad. Again, no meandering debates or rhetorical one-upsmanship. People simply enter their ideas into the computer; instantly, each idea appears on both the big screen and everyone's monitors. People can also enter explanations and elaborations, which remain hidden until the facilitator highlights a specific item. This brainstorming process lasts all of four minutes and generates 35 reasonably interesting ideas about what's wrong with meetings. Ten minutes of live discussion help collapse the list into 22 final items.

Then it's time to vote. Markowitz asks the group to rank each of the 22 items on a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 means "irritating, but not an impediment to work" and 10 stands for "complete impediment to getting work done." Some people vote faster than others, and as the early birds finish, they begin chatting. For the first time Markowitz seems worried about distractions; she threatens to throw Nerf footballs at the laggards. And she knows who they are. The big screen shows how many people haven't finished; her monitor lists their identities.

The voting proves to be a rich source of follow-up discussion. The runaway winner — "poorly defined agendas" — registers an overall score of 86, a mean rating of 7.82 (on the 1 to 10 scale), and a standard deviation of 1.66. The software allows the group to sort any of the 22 problems by these and other variables. It also allows each participant to see how his or her rankings differ from the group consensus.

Forty minutes into this electronic meeting, Markowitz is making converts. "It would take my group three meetings to do this!" exclaims one participant. Others are less exuberant. "My back hurts and I'm getting hungry," one person complains. "I need some coffee," adds another.

And so it goes for another 50 minutes. Lots of ideas and electronic input, limited but focused discussions, a genuine sense of accomplishment, but still plenty of reminders of our limited appetite for meetings — even well-structured ones. As the group files out, people express mild shock at the software's price tag ($35,000 for a fully functional system), but almost everyone agrees it has been an unusually productive session.

"The telephone didn't eliminate the need for face-to-face-communication," Markowitz concludes, "and technology won't get rid of meetings. But it can make them more effective."

A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.