After the meeting: Don't let the details slip away

Keeping track of corporate knowledge—including the ideas and issues discussed in all the meetings you attend—seems an impossible task. But Tim Landgrave has some easy tips for documenting this information and making it readily available.

One of the intangible benefits of personal computers is that they enable corporations and individuals to capture the company’s intellectual property (IP) in the form of word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, electronic mail messages, drawings, and the outputs of other computer software. Yet even though we’re getting closer to a time when all of a company’s knowledge can be stored, searched, retrieved, and processed, we still have to overcome some basic human flaws. The primary one is that people are better at speaking, listening, and viewing than they are at typing and reading. This is a real problem when you consider that the overwhelming majority of computer users input data by typing and consume data by reading the written word. And it also helps explain why meetings—which produce a wealth of IP—are often poorly documented.
This week’s installment discusses ways to keep track of information generated during meetings. Next week, we’ll look at what you can do with the IP you’ve captured and discuss the human and legal implications of the technology, as well as the future enhancements that will make IP capture simple.
Information evaporates
Think about any meeting you’ve been in over the last two weeks. Did anyone in the meeting produce a detailed summary of the issues discussed in the meeting and the decisions reached? Do all the meeting participants have a copy? All company employees?

If someone wasn’t at that meeting but needs access to the information generated during the meeting, would the summary document be sufficient for them to understand the issues raised, or will you and others who attended the meeting have to spend time trying to re-create the discussions to give them the proper context? What if you disagree about what was said in the meeting? How do you resolve the dispute?

It’s bad enough that we spend half our waking hours in meetings, but many of us spend the other half working on implementing decisions reached in the meetings without having access to the meeting’s actual content. One of the benefits of discussing important issues over e-mail and in threaded discussions is having the relevant information readily accessible. But most people’s typing limitations make it impossible for them to contribute effectively in either of these text-based media.

The bottom line is that most companies have no efficient way to keep detailed records of the events in which most of their IP is generated—the meetings. In this context, meetings are not limited to intercompany discussions, but include scheduled interactions with vendors, customers, or partners, as well as training classes held by or for your organization.

All the knowledge generated is stuck in the heads of the attendees and can’t be easily transferred either to other employees or to that employee’s successor (in that worst-case scenario that suggests he or she might be hit by a bus on the way home from work).

What’s the simple answer?
With apologies to The Graduate, the answer to this problem is, “Tape recorders, son, tape recorders.”

Although I fundamentally dislike ANY analog technology (including pencils, pens, and film cameras), in many cases they’re better than nothing.

If the best you can do is take a micro cassette recorder into a meeting or a discussion, at least you walk away with a record of the meeting that you can later transcribe and share with the participants.

To those who say it’s rude to record a meeting, I would suggest that it’s even ruder to write or type furiously while someone is speaking and not listen actively. In fact, some of my company’s most detailed, useful, and insightful marketing material and product documentation has been produced by someone tape recording and then transcribing and organizing a meeting’s discussion.

A more elegant and useful solution is to use the digital audio recording capability of PDAs and portable PCs.

I’ve been in several meetings where I’ve turned on the recorder on my Compaq iPAQ Windows-powered PC (sorry, Palm cave people) to capture the discussion. I then move the digital audio file to my PC, transcribe and organize it, and save the transcription (which can be indexed). I also save and flag the digital audio file for later reference or retrieval.

The main problem I’ve had with this method of capture is that much of the content of meetings is visual (PowerPoint slides, drawings on the whiteboard, facial expressions) and not easily captured on any audio-only device.

Ready for that close-up…
I’ve discussed the benefits of truly mobile, wireless computing in previous columns, and I’ll give another example here. I’ve begun experimenting with digital video recording using a portable PC and a USB camera. With a $99 video capture product like MGI’s VideoWave III (my personal favorite), I can sit down in a meeting and start recording digital video to my hard drive.

I generally aim the USB camera at the screen or white board when there’s a large group of people. For a small group (fewer than five), I position the camera so that it can capture the faces and the audio for the entire group. I’ve also had to purchase a separate $20 external omnidirectional microphone to capture crisp sound.

The result? I have a complete record of the meeting, including all PowerPoint slides, drawings, and discussions. I can take the resulting ASF file (one of the formats automatically generated by VideoWave) and place it on an internal Windows Media Server for others to view if they need to revisit the meeting or attend for the first time.

The audio is crisp enough to be transcribed and used as if it were just an audio recording. I can have our graphics department look at the video and recreate any drawings generated in the meeting as standard JPEG or GIF graphics. Then, using the simple editing tools in the VideoWave product, I can overlay the PowerPoint slides and the fresh, clean graphics to produce a company-ready presentation anyone can view from their desk or take with them to customer meetings on their laptop or a CD-ROM.

The results aren’t going to win any academy awards for cinematography, but we have a simple, cost-effective, rapid way of collecting, indexing, storing, and retrieving the IP we generate on a daily basis. For presentations that may win some awards or that are intended for public distribution, you can replace the USB camera with a high-quality mini-DV camera and get fantastic video quality. The beauty of this approach is that you can use the same technology to capture video teleconferences as well.
Do you record departmental meetings? Do you save them for reference? Or do you think it’s too much trouble? Send us an e-mail or start a discussion below.

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