Creative meetings using web conferencing?

[tweetmeme]Web conferencing has been “the next big thing” for a while now, and with everyone worrying about their carbon footprint, it should be more relevant than ever, right? Then why do I regularly find myself on the road, train, or plane, heading for a meeting with stakeholders which could in theory have been done using tools like Skype, or even just a conference call?  Well, it works in theory, but I’ve yet to find a web conferencing tool that can do it in practice. Why is that?

This week’s seminar speaker, Mick Angel, gave me some food for thought with his presentation on Web Conferencing and Creativity. One of his case studies for his research was Google, who have virtual meetings as a default between their widely spread offices.  So if Google can make web conferencing work, why can’t everyone make it work? What is it that Google does, that makes them good at web conferencing? It can’t just be the technology – HP spent millions on high-tech conference suites (HP Halo) at $500 000 a pop with dedicated communication lines, HD screens, HD video feed and document sharing (so HD in fact that recording it would create data files of terabyte sizes) etc, etc. But even HP admits that it’s not ideal, and it’s not just because of the price-tag. The setup is too businessy and does not allow participants to collaborate easily on artifacts. So if having the flashiest, most expensive technology available doesn’t solve the problems, what does?

Maybe the problem is a cultural one. At Google, the organizational culture actively promotes and expects web conferencing to work. There are unspoken, but seemingly well understood “rules of engagement”. They also have a shared internal language that helps simplify the collaboration on documents, IM and in web conferencing. And as Mick pointed out: “if the only time your boss can assess you is when you speak up in conference calls, then those who want to succeed will seek to actively participate” – thus alleviating one of my big issues with web conferencing – the passive, quiet person who listens, but doesn’t contribute.

Would web conferencing work for us, if we had a shared language, expectations and agreed “rules of engagement” with the people we work with? Could we ever agree on it? It’s possible within a single company, but across organizations? Maybe the development of multi-user online collaboration tools (rather than single user tools – like Word – adapted to support editing by multiple users) will make it easier? Or maybe Google should start running training courses? One thing is for sure, until I figure out how to have a successful creative meeting over the web, I will probably stick with face-to-face for creative meetings. Call me old-fashioned, but I know it works, and I know how it works.

What do you think? Does web conferencing work for you? I’d be interested in hearing when it does and when it doesn’t. What’s the plusses and the negatives?

Author: Kristine Pitts