October 3, 2007

This is an eyewitness account of a new meeting format in action. Many are thinking about how Web 2.0 might influence our industry—how it could make meetings different in tangible ways. I feel privileged to have an opportunity to see for myself.

It is 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 3. I am at the Brussels Atomium, where the Holiday Inn Brussels Airport will have a client meeting and dinner. It is my first-ever Wiki Workshop. Three roundtables are set up for dinner, and there are three small standing tables with laptops connected to the Internet. The 20 clients will arrive from the Holiday Inn at about 6:00 on a bus.

In case you haven’t heard of wikis, they are websites that allow everyone who registers to add and change content. (You probably have heard of Wikipedia, an encyclopedia created by and living inside a wiki.) All you need is a PC with a web browser and an Internet connection--no software, no website skills--to begin having very interactive communications with many people simultaneously. The home page of a wiki shows a menu, to which you can add an item to start your own page. In this case the wiki home page has a menu with three words--Earth, Wind, and Fire--named for the teams comprising the meeting and their corresponding laptops. Each of the three pages lists a number of topics, pre-defined by the organizer, with space for participants to write.

The goal for the evening is to gather as many ideas and questions as possible about the planned refurbishment of the hotel. This is what I call bottom-up education--where the organization holding the meeting, Holiday Inn, learns from the participants. This is the opposite of the traditional top-down education, where an organization presents a topic to the participants. With Web 2.0, the participants create the content, not the speaker or the meeting organizer. Everyone works together, and because it’s a wiki, everyone can change everyone else’s work. The result of tonight’s meeting should be a document that can be used tomorrow by the entire team working on the refurbishment project and next week in an architect’s briefing. The wiki will continue on as a notepad for ideas and a place to share architectural drawings, pictures of furniture, and so forth.

The working format for tonight will have the three groups of participants standing at their laptops, having discussions during an informal dinner. Every discussion will be based on a question, and all ideas from each group will be noted on the designated (Earth, Wind, or Fire) wiki page. Each group will assign someone to input the notes. An on-stage screen will display the ideas for all to see. When inspired by Earth’s notes, the Wind and Fire teams can add more ideas on their page. Between dinner courses, people get up and work on another topic; moving around will help keep them alert and awake. At the end of the evening, we hope to have a rich harvest of ideas and suggestions that will strongly influence the hotel’s design and functionality.

We are also using a few other techniques to activate participants’ brains and make the bottom–up process work. On the bus to the Atomium, a facilitator is handing out Post-It notes for participants to write down expectations and top-of-mind suggestions for the evening. These will be sorted in groups on flipcharts.

We also are using voting keypads, or audience response systems. A truckload of questions has been prepared, most with multiple-choice answer options. As people vote, the results will be turned immediately into graphs to be displayed on the in-room screen. Finally, participants will be able to record personal notes on specific open-ended questions. The facilitator will distribute booklets containing one question or topic per page with space for notes. No discussion will take place on these questions and topics; and every individual writes down his or her ideas after some reflection.

Thus there will be a mix of low tech and high tech; of group discussion and individual opinion; of objective data from multiple-choice questions and subjective observations in free text; and of work done sitting down and standing. We definitively anticipate a lot of diverse input.

Six Hours Later…

It is now 11:30 and the meeting ended an hour ago. I am home, looking at the wiki and adding some pictures. The results are stunning, the possibilities endless. The evening reached a boiling point of activity. We achieved a total of 2,400 individual answers to about 120 questions--this from just 20 participants over dinner. Now we must sort and analyze these results and report them to the organizers, a group of architects, and the participants themselves.

The wiki now contains the notes that the participants input and the images I’ve added. The next step will be to add the voting results and the contents of the Post-It notes and the booklets with the answers to the open-ended questions. Then a link and password will be sent to all participants so they can continue adding ideas, commenting, and reviewing pictures. The group will be kept up to date automatically about additions or other changes to the wiki, and they will be sent follow-up communications to encourage and direct their continued participation.

Final Thoughts

A colleague and I created and moderated the workshop, and while it did not take a lot of work to get the participant group to produce so many ideas, preparation was critical: creating the right questions, making sure all technical elements worked correctly, and designing a look and feel for the meeting that was conducive to achieving success.

Using a wiki was a simple way to satisfy the meeting’s goals, but many other, more specialized technologies are available that allow groups--even very large ones—to work even faster and better. The Meeting Support Institute (www.meetingsupport.org) offers a listing of them. Some even provide experienced, professional moderators.

Web 2.0 is infecting the meetings industry. Collaboration will only increase as young people joining the work force. Companies like Synthetron in Belgium, Crystal Interactive in the U.K., Spotme in Switzerland, nTAG in Boston, log-on in the Netherlands, and many others are ready to help you. If you want to generate more ROI from meetings and increase the influence of meetings, this is certainly the way to go.