If Elliott Masie were king of the forest, the woods would be blanketed with Wi-Fi, every encounter between predator and prey would be televised, and the results of every campfire chat would be shared instantly via blog or IM.

And a caffeinated beverage would accompany every meal. (He didn't say that, but he does come across like a revved-up guy who thrives on Starbucks and Diet Coke. If his energy could be tapped, it would probably light up a small New England town for a week.)

An internationally recognized futurist, analyst, and researcher on learning, technology, business, and workplace productivity, Masie runs The Masie Center, a Saratoga Springs, N.Y., think tank focused on how organizations can support learning and knowledge within the workforce. He also leads the Learning Consortium, a coalition of more than 200 Fortune 500 companies including Target, American Express, The Home Depot, and Wal-Mart.

From the moment you meet him you know that Masie is an idea guy — an agent provocateur with sometimes controversial approaches to a variety of topics, from training to meetings and more. When he spoke at Meeting Professionals International's January conference in New Orleans, he electrified the room with his out-of-the-box ideas and impassioned opposition to the industry's status quo.

We tried to contain Masie — a moving target if there ever was one — long enough to extract his ideas on what has gone wrong with corporate meetings and how they can be revived. The good news: There is hope for the future. The bad news: We won't move forward without radical re-thinking. That forest he lives in is full of innovative technologies hiding in the bushes, just waiting to overtake one-way seminars, roundtables, and other traditional meeting formats.

It's an eat-or-be-eaten world out there, and Elliott Masie hopes that you're hungry.

Corporate Meetings & Incentives: One of the things that you said to MPI members in New Orleans was: “What if people went to a meeting and by the time they left they had written a book?”

Elliott Masie: One of the interesting shifts occurring right now is that we are moving from a read-only world to a read-write world, meaning that I write, you write. In the old days (meaning a month ago), we would write a column, or we would write an article, or I would write a book, and maybe we got one or two crank letters back and the occasional thank you. But for the most part, the world read your article, nodded their heads, and went on.

It was a one-way process.

Not any more. We are moving toward a phenomenon that has two elements. One is called the “Democratization of Content,” which means more people will have the expectation that they can think, write, and distribute. Second is this concept of the “Wisdom of the Crowds,” which means that there is value in finding a way to aggregate the thinking of a larger group of people. It doesn't mean it's better than the thinking of one expert, but it certainly has a richness to it that increasingly appeals to us.

So instead of dissemination, attendees focus on creation — thus, the book.

Yes! Or even better: Let's imagine we put up little kiosks around the meeting, each with a computer and a video camera on top. It's a swimming pool/spa salesperson meeting. Tell the camera your best story about the most unusual customer you ever had. That becomes an online video. If you're that meeting owner, what a momentous collection of content!

JetBlue did a bigger version of this out on the street in several places around the United States. People were lined up for a half a block, waiting to tell their best JetBlue story on video.

The meetings industry is moderately threatened by advances in technology. But people come to meetings because they want to have meetings of the tribe. They are tribal, but so much of what we do tribally isn't related to the activities that are the formal activities on the agenda of the meeting.

Who else is doing this?

I'm on the board of the Center for Association Leadership of ASAE [American Society of Association Executives]. ASAE's doing it at some of its meetings. We're also seeing it at pharmaceutical meetings.

What's enabling it is that the technology is becoming lightweight and inexpensive. In the old days, you would hire a video crew with lights and a big fuzzy microphone, and they might interview 12 people.

What if your next meeting became a publishing event? Or a content-gathering event? Let's say you've got Al Gore to speak on global warming. You know that in the audience there is a bell curve of people who will agree or disagree with him, but how does that relate to your industry if it's bus transportation? You could have post-Gore conversations that aggregate into a publication that's available either instantly or in 90 days called Can the Bus Industry Go Green?

Are you advocating that people do this to all of their meetings? Are you suggesting that they replace entirely the way they do things?

No, no. I think it's a component. I'll give you an example of where we're experimenting in some of the meetings I do. We do the sessions that you are very familiar with, which are structured presentations, PowerPoints, blah, blah, blah. Then we have other types that are really different. One is a mash-up, which is a conversation where we say, “Anybody who's interested in this topic, go to Room A,” and we won't provide a facilitator in that room; there is no agenda, only whiteboards. Some of the most amazing things happen in those rooms.

Why is nearly 90 percent of the content of meetings in lecture form, with all that we know about adult learning and the need for interactivity?

It's a way of saying, “You're important, so we will give you this presentation.” It's also logistically simpler as a meeting planner to find 12 people who are relatively interesting to listen to. I would be way more interested in having Al Gore interviewed by four people from a particular industry. But it requires courage to do that because you're breaking the mold. Now people are saying, “Where's the podium? Where are the PowerPoints?”

Most meetings are still controlled by folks who are older, and some of what I am talking about are emerging trends that are much more about the fluency of a younger generation. But I will tell you that when we do meetings that are different, the folks who are 50 or 60 love it, because most of them go to sleep anyway when the PowerPoint starts.

The No. 1 thing that people will tell you is that the value for the meeting was what happened outside the meeting rooms. I know one meeting planner who does something really cool: She puts flip charts near the coffeepots. She found that if you're talking to somebody, you need paper. It's a natural thing for people to want to interact. It's why you have alcohol and mixers and hors d'oeuvres.

What is your view of some of the other standard meeting formats: the Q&As, the panels, the roundtables?

They all have their role. The formats, unfortunately, are usually defined before the content or the desired outcome. They'll say, “Elliott, we want you to be a keynoter. And it's going to be 60 minutes long. What do you want to talk about?” They've already figured out that they want 60 minutes of me. But what if I have only 20 minutes of information?

I gave a speech not long ago, and everybody there could text me questions via their cell phones while I was speaking. In front of me was a big LCD screen, and I could see their questions pop up as I was speaking. Six or seven times during my speech, I stopped and said, “Somebody just sent me a question about X,” and I responded to that. I didn't get to all of them, so the ones I didn't get to I later published in a short Q&A. That was a younger audience, and text messaging was a really powerful element.

Every one of the formats that you mentioned has lots of value if you're strategic about it. The problem with a lot of panels, for example, is that the panelists are given a pre-allocated amount of time to talk. You would hope they would argue with each other, but they are five people who each have only nine minutes to talk. What if you did a panel where each person had to put a 10-minute video of his or her position online, and you saw it before you got to the event? You would begin the panel assuming that everybody in the room had seen the panelists' presentations online, and now the whole 60 minutes is spent reacting to what each participant said and taking questions from the audience.

My gold standard is this: Let's not do something at a meeting that we could do online, because we can do things at a meeting that we could never do online.

Where do unconferences and open-space meetings fit in?

I see them as implementations of a broader view of how we make conferences more tribal and social. Take a trade show. Some people want to shop it the way they do a shopping mall. They want to kind of go through the aisles. Other people are only shopping for one thing, and they want to spend their three available hours looking at the five booths that have that one thing. What can we do to give them half an hour of face-to-face time in each of those booths?

How would you do that?

Some companies are doing it already. You could do it with some type of online matching system, like a Match.com, for the attending companies. In other words, it's like, “I'm coming, here's what I'm trying to buy, here's my authority for buying it. Is there someone out there who is interested in talking to me?”

How could those social networking technologies be used for meetings?

Imagine that it's the opening session of a conference, and instead of that rush to go in, you get a card saying, “You're sitting at table 16.” You're sitting at 16 because you have been matched by characteristics. Those people could be in the same field, or they could work for companies you might some day want to join.

Right now, those connections happen randomly. A lot of people tell me, “The best conversation I had at the whole meeting was talking to Morris, a guy I met on the shuttle from the airport, and we connected. We sat together at the general session, we went out, and you know what? His company actually has a product that I want to buy.” That's a random connection. Those are great.

But why do they have to be random? Let's unrandomize the extent to which people find jewels at events.

When meetings end, the dialogue that's begun there typically doesn't continue when attendees go home. Isn't that a missed opportunity?

People make two false assumptions. They make the assumption that people will stay in touch, and the reality is that we all get busy. Communication doesn't happen without mediation and facilitation. You have to have somebody who literally is going to help people keep in touch without making it a burden for them.

Where do you weigh in with reference to virtual meetings? It seems like a natural outgrowth of some of the things that you have suggested.

I break virtual meetings into two parts. There are virtual meetings that are still traditional content delivered virtually, so most virtual meetings are online PowerPoint presentations. And I think they are as ineffective as their analog at a meeting.

But another form of virtual meeting isn't necessarily an event, but the building of a community. IBM recently held a virtual meeting, and the CEO had an animated character. Your character could bump into and start a conversation with the CEO's character and tease him. We're finding that in those virtual communities, people are behaving in ways they wouldn't behave in person. Some of us think this is really good, like me, and some people think it's horrendous. I think that part of the future of virtual meetings is going to be environments that I can come into, post something, leave, and come back to time after time.

Elliott Masie on collaborating at meetings:

“WHAT IF your next meeting became a publishing event? What if it became a content-gathering event? Let's say you've got Al Gore to speak on global warming. You know that in the audience there is a bell curve of people who will agree or disagree with him, but how does that relate to your industry if it's bus transportation? You could have post-Gore conversations that aggregate into a publication that's available either instantly or in 90 days called Can the Bus Industry Go Green?”

Elliott Masie on social networking:

“WHAT IF it's the opening session of a conference, and instead of that rush to go in, you get a card saying, “You're sitting at table 16.” You're sitting at 16 because you have been matched by characteristics. Those people could be in the same field, or they could all be people who work for companies you might some day want to join.”

Elliott Masie on panels:

“WHAT IF you did a panel where each person had to put a 10-minute video of their position online, and you saw it before you got to the event? You would begin the panel assuming that everybody in the room had seen the panel's presentations online, and now the whole 60 minutes is spent reacting to what each participant said and taking questions from the audience.”

Elliott Masie on using meetings to promote your company:

“WHAT IF we put up little kiosks around the meeting, each with a computer and a video camera on top? It's a swimming pool/spa salesperson meeting. Tell the camera your best story about the most unusual customer you ever had. That becomes an online video. If you're that meeting owner, what a momentous collection of content!”

CMI May Issue