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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Another brilliant idea from the executive suite (not)
Posted by Jill | 5:34 AM
I have always hated meetings. One of the reasons I wanted to be a programmer was so that I could sit in a corner, do my work, and be left alone. But something happened along the way. For one thing, after I hit the age of 40 I started realizing that I had inherited my father's garrulousness. (My mother calls it "compulsive talking" and insists I've always had it. You decide.) And iin recent years, the supreme irony of my life is that I have found myself in a late-career career in which up to half of my time is spent in meetings. And I've found that not all meetings are a waste of time after all.

My department head has an expressed hierarchy of communication: Personal contact is best, followed by telephone, followed by e-mail. Our upcoming IT upgrade will make it so that those 7 AM teleconferences taken at home will warrant full dress and makeup, lest we be seen on webcam in fuzzy pink bathrobe with bedhead, bags under our eyes, and cat playing with the mouse pointer on our screen. But here's the thing that I've found: He's actually right.

What I do involves a lot of meetings with teams. Some of those teams are overseas, which makes face-to-face impossible, at least until we start teleconferencing. But what I've found is that especially when there are language and cultural issues, in-person and even voice contact really IS far more effective than e-mail, not to mention that when an elaborate discussion takes place via e-mail, it's often impossible to evaluate which of the e-mails you hsould keep and which can be trashed -- because someone might be responding to only one response embedded deeply in the thread, thus creating a satellite e-mail thread of its own. The result is that you can end up with dozens of e-mail messages, none of which can be trashed because each contains something not in the others.

Sometimes it's easier to just have a meeting or teleconference and write the damn minutes.

So along with all the other compromises I've had to make over the years with my Adamant Adolescent Principles, my loathing for meetings has fallen by the wayside -- provided they are effective ones.

I've found through experience is that the key to an effective meeting is to know what you want to accomplish, have a defined agenda, have a tactful way of breaking up filibusters, and remind people that if you can't get it done today, you'll have to call another meeting -- a fate worse than death. I have pretty good communication skills, largely attained while in grad school and doing the millions of presentations required as part of that lovely experience, but I would say to anyone who has to give presentations and run meetings is that the only way to learn to do it effectively without nervousness is to just do it.

They way NOT to encourage staff to have more meetings and fewer endless e-mail threads is this:

You’ve got mail–not. Employees of tech company Atos will be banned from sending emails under the company’s new “zero email” policy.

CEO Thierry Breton of the French information technology company said only 10 percent of the 200 messages employees receive per day are useful and 18 percent is spam. That’s why he hopes the company can eradicate internal emails in 18 months, forcing the company’s 74,000 employees to communicate with each other via instant messaging and a Facebook-style interface.

Caroline Crouch, a spokeswoman for the company, told ABC News the goal is focused on internal emails rather than external emails with clients and partners. Atos has already reduced the number of internal emails by 20 percent in six months.


Crouch said Atos is evaluating a number of new tools to replace internal email including collaborative and social media tools. Those include the Atos Wiki, which allows all employees to communicate by contributing or modifying online content, and Office Communicator, the company’s online chat system which allows video conferencing, and file and application sharing.

Collaborative tools are great, but I'm always skeptical when anything called a "tool" is presented as something that will solve all of the problems related to that task. While I'm hoping to look into ways to establish a permanent knowledge base next year that doesn't involve word searches through meeting minutes for the things we do that occur over and over again, and while I am an avid devotée of forums and wikis and collaborative tools and social media-type interfaces, I don't think you'll ever eliminate internal e-mail, and banning it as a top-down diktat from Mount Olympus is not the way to go about it.

Managers should not delude themselves that chat capabilities are preferable. Not a day goes by that I have an interactive chat that doesn't result in someone either saying "Let's talk by phone" or "I'll stop by", nor should they make blanket statements that internal e-mail is useless. Internal e-mail is one of the best cover-your-ass tools available. In a heavily team-oriented environment, where agreements made today may be denied tomorrow, a written, dated record is useful evidence to have; more useful even than meeting minutes, which can be dismissed later on as the interpretation of their author, unless you add even more layers of good-luck-getting-it by requiring all attendees to sign off on the minutes.

This kind of sledgehammer tactics always smack of "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." E-mail doesn't have the glamour of wikis and Facebook emulators and bad video images of your bleary-eyed colleagues in another time zone clutching cups of coffee while you're getting ready to head home for the day. But all-or-nothing ways of thinking are hardly the way to go about fostering teamwork.
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Blogger Bob said...
What you do for those 7 am teleconferences is position a photo of your "work" face in front of the camera, but like that low tech shtick Conan does, cut out a hole for your lips.