Just about every high-tech company is promising a technology miracle that will "completely redefine the way we do business." While few firms can rightfully lay claim to that mantra, certain technological innovations will, in fact, radically change the way we work. One such breakthrough in the meeting industry is what's known as distance education.
Distance education, simply put, is the practice of delivering live or archived educational courses electronically, typically over the Internet. Tools are emerging that allow students to attend a class remotely, using their computer, an Internet connection and, in some cases, a teleconferencing service. Being developed by companies such as Placeware (www. placeware.com), Centra Software (www.centra.com), and my organization, Netpodium (www.netpodium.com), these tools allow students to interact in real time with an instructor and other students anywhere in the world. Students can use collaborative whiteboard tools or shared application programs. Instructors can remotely control students' browsers and walk them through example Web sites. Students can even take self-grading exams via the Internet.
And here's the key concept that makes these ideas so compelling: Distance education is, by its nature, hands-on. And hands-on education is the most effective form of teaching.
What Business Are You In? OK, so why should meeting planners care? I'll answer that question by relating a disagreement I had recently with a friend who is the executive director of a large international technology users group. Our debate centered on the nature of his association's core business. He claimed it to be the production of educational meetings. But I pointed out that he was actually in the business of providing educational content, not educational meetings. The meetings were simply a delivery vehicle.
Consider the example of Egghead Software, one of the largest retail software chains in the country. Egghead recently made a radical and courageous decision to close its entire network of nearly 200 physical stores in favor of selling software only through its Web site. Reincarnated as Egghead.com, the company understands that its real business is to deliver software cost-effectively, not to provide physical stores. The delivery mechanism is independent of the content. And the content represents the real value.
This is also true of the educational delivery business. Educational content represents the real value, and the physical meeting is only a delivery vehicle. And as in the software sales business, the cost of delivering educational content via the Internet is a fraction of the cost of delivering it through traditional meetings. It doesn't take a large leap of imagination to envision a completely virtual conference composed of perhaps several hundred distance education programs linked together by time and topic.
Content-Focused Future The corollary is that the job of the meeting planner may change significantly. In a virtual world physical logistics largely disappear. Logistical planning at that point will consist mostly of arranging proper times for educational events and in ensuring that the necessary technology is in place. In a distance education centered world, robust educational content planning will emerge as the most highly prized planning skill.
Face-to-face conferences will never disappear. People need to meet for a variety of reasons that can't easily be addressed in the virtual world. Nonetheless, any group producing technology meetings with a significant educational component should be considering the cost effectiveness, time effectiveness, and educational effectiveness of this kind of future.