Are meetings still relevant?

In a webinar earlier this year sponsored by NewWOW (New Ways of Working),  David Coleman posed a provocative question: “In the world of enterprise social collaboration, has the social construct of “meetings” become anachronistic? In other words, are meetings obsolete?” I asked a couple of participants to reflect on this question – Editor.

In a recent session for NewWow that I led with my colleague Julia Young (Planning and Running Exceptional Virtual Meetings), a  participant posed a provocative question at the very end, which went something like this:  Is a meeting still the “right” construct for conversations?  (Remember that the topic was virtual meetings, so consider the context here.)

I’ve had a few weeks to ruminate his question. My initial reply: Of course! To have a real conversation, people really have to be talking together, at the same time, in pretty much the same way. Otherwise, we’re just pushing out (or pulling in) a bunch of potentially disconnected thoughts that often cross paths somewhere in the clouds. That’s not the stuff authentic conversations are made of, IMHO.

According to Merriam-Webster, a conversation is an oral exchange of sentiments, observations, or ideas, or an instance of such an exchange. Reference.com says that conversation is an information interchange of thoughts, information, etc. by spoken words. Says Answers.com: Conversation is the spoken exchange of thoughts, opinions and feelings; talk.
Aha! The key seems to be an oral exchange or interchange of ideas or thoughts. So a volley of emails, regardless of how well-crafted or timely, doesn’t really constitute an oral exchange. What about something more “organic,” like a wiki or a blog, where people are invited to express themselves or build on others’ ideas? Still not oral in that the words are not spoken, but this type of interchange somehow feels closer to a same-time conversation than a string of emails. And what about a Tweet that provokes a flood of simultaneous response – enough to start a revolution?

So, is the meeting still the right construct for conversations, when team members work virtually—perhaps across several time zones?  Yes, in most cases. The more interesting question, for me, becomes: Do we need real-time conversations as much as we think we do? When will another kind of exchange work just as well, especially if it means people can participate when it’s most convenient? What do we gain and what do we lose when we forfeit opportunities to converse in favor of using other communication methods that are more expedient and efficient?

In Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together, she starts out by saying: “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run. ..Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.”

In conclusion, I’d say that yes, a same-time meeting (whether virtual or face-to-face) really is the right construct, if what we want is an exchange of thoughts and ideas, complete with the nuance, meaning and context that only spoken language can impart so well. Perhaps we don’t need as many meetings as we think we do, but let’s not abandon real conversations in favor of convenience or expediency just because we can.

posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy

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