Tech & Work

Decision Support: Meeting-facilitation software boosts executive training

Looks at how the instructors at the National Defense University (NDU) use Meetingworks to conduct constructive on-line meetings with high-level executives not used to this type of meeting environment


Establishing effective training for senior-level executives is no easy task at any organization. First of all, their knowledge base is already quite strong—imagine a session in which all of the students have 20 or more years of experience. Then, imagine that the "students" will include senior military officers, who bring an authoritative presence that will naturally affect how classmates will speak and collaborate in sessions.

Those are some issues that instructors at the National Defense University (NDU), a government organization and fully accredited graduate school, face on a routine basis.

NDU students are typically in their mid-forties, and are senior leaders within the federal government working on complex, strategic issues. Dr. Roger Channing, a professor in the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, has created his own acronym for his student body: VUCA. A psychologist and an infantry officer for 29 years, Channing explains that the acronym describes “the executive environment: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous."

To enhance training for this unique class of students, Channing constantly seeks new tools to leverage the students’ knowledge and experience as they meet together in university sessions.

Generating and managing information
One of Channing’s current tools is Meetingworks, a meeting-facilitation software package.

“It’s not like [Microsoft] NetMeeting, where the idea is just to get a bunch of people together to chat or whatever. The idea here is a deliberate, conscious, decision-making process,” explained Channing, adding that many products force participants to use a stipulated decision-making process. The instructor can adapt Meetingworks to the decision-making style that’s right for his group, rather than making the participants adapt to the technology.

One important feature for NDU is the software’s ability to create an accurate record of each class meeting, which the participants can view as the session progresses. Channing worked with the British Army for a couple of years, and recalled an incident that illustrates the need for such a feature. The British general he worked for always made him take notes at multinational meetings. One day, Channing asked, “Sir, isn’t it time for one of these other countries to do this?” The general looked at him and said, “Yankee, haven’t I taught you anything yet? He who writes the minutes of the meeting determines its outcome!”

“I got his point, and that’s the nice thing about collaborative software—you capture what’s actually happening during the meeting. You’ve got the voting, you’ve got the inputs, the raw data,” Channing explained, adding that instructors can evaluate those ideas in many different ways with the software’s tools.

A second important feature for NDU sessions is the ability for participants to remain anonymous. Channing said that privacy is important because territorial and rank issues create a sort of caste system in which the opinion of a person with two stars can seem more important than that of a person with one star.

Flexibility saved money
NDU uses Meetingworks in its Executive Decision Support and Technology Center. There are 26 workstations in the collaborative area, known as an “experiential learning environment.”

The environment is critical for getting the most out of the sessions, said Channing, as “we’re working with very experienced adults who bring a lot to the table, and so the more they can collaborate, the more they can learn.” The dedicated area has six smart boards with projectors and a “live wall” that can display up to 256 windows on an 18-foot screen.

There are several product versions for different group needs. While NDU runs the basic Meetingworks for Windows over a LAN, the Meetingworks Connect product lets users participate “live” from a remote location. The Meetingworks InternetEdition allows users to participate from different locations and at different times. “I’ve run all three types at the same time with people on campus, off campus, and overseas without any problem,” Channing said.

The flexibility of configuration, and the fact that Meetingworks' Windows interface has a familiar look and feel for new users, has saved NDU training time and dollars. Overall, Channing said the system saved NDU at least $140,000 in the first year of implementation.

Pricing for the Meetingworks Connect Pack, which includes LAN and Internet capabilities, starts at $3,000. The company also offers a free demo version of Meetingworks for Windows that works with up to eight participants.

The bottom line: People
While Channing is impressed with how meeting-facilitation software enhances the exchange of information during training, he noted that the software doesn’t replace the need for qualified instructors.

“All that electronic software does is take a poor facilitator and make him fail faster, in detail, and make a permanent record of it,” Channing said. “It’s not a substitute for a good meeting, a good agenda, or a good facilitator.”

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