To some, using software to foster meetings seems impersonal. After all, why place a computer interface between people in the same room? Yet some tech leaders say that certain applications can foster better interaction, especially when the group numbers eight or more.

Meeting software isn’t new. In a recent case study of the National Defense University, Dr. Roger Channing detailed how one application, Meetingworks, is used to facilitate meetings of senior military and civilian leaders. The product is one of just a few packages designed exclusively for meeting facilitation, though some enterprises are using more general collaboration software, such as Lotus Sametime, for the same purposes. While Meetingworks is known and valued, it’s not the only game in town. TechRepublic members shared a few other options, such as longtime product GroupSystems.

Parallel processing for people
“Prior to GroupSystems, the primary alternative for facilitators was the use of ‘butcher paper,’” Ed Feige wrote recently to TechRepublic. Feige is a senior process manager with Andrulis Corp., an IT and engineering company that has used the software for nine years. The company uses GroupSystems for several needs, including prioritizing requirements, analyzing organization processes, and developing strategic plans. According to GroupSystems, a start-up LAN system of 10 networked users costs just above $17,000. Each additional user license is about $750, and the vendor offers a discounted GSA schedule for federal agencies.

Feige likens the difference between the old way (easel and paper) of facilitating meetings and the new to the difference between parallel processing and serial processing. With easel and paper, the facilitator had to record comments as presented, in a serial manner. Using the software lets participants work in a “parallel” process, submitting their ideas at once. Comments are immediately displayed on screen as expressed by the individual. While that alone is a benefit, Feige has also seen a 50 percent reduction in meeting time.

At Andrulis, GroupSystems runs off a dedicated server using Windows 2000 and an Ethernet configuration. While providing a range of tools, Andrulis has determined the brainstorming tool, voting suite, outliner, and topic commenter as the most useful features.

Wired meeting rooms
For one local government entity, GroupSystems provided a good approach to working on diverse projects and those that sometimes include outside input.

Using technology during meetings wasn’t new to Carol Lindsay, a process manager in the IT department with the County of Fairfax, VA. In fact, after a few years of using GroupSystems, her department revamped three training rooms with workstations and network wiring to facilitate the meeting technology they were using. By combining two of the rooms, Lindsay can facilitate a meeting of 31 participants, although most meetings range between eight to 12 or 25 to 30. The third room is an office/support room with a conference table wired for laptops.

The IT department supports 30 to 40 projects per year, many of which span a couple of months. The GroupSystems technology is especially helpful when projects enlist outsider input. For example, citizens on a special committee used GroupSystems and a geographic information system to redraw district county boundaries. The facilitation approach has also helped evaluate 16 vendor proposals for a Web CMS, assist in the reallocation of duties for the Health Department’s clinical nurses, and conduct surveys.

A level playing field
While meeting facilitators often boast how software can cut meeting times by 50 percent, they also cite how the technology increases attendee participation.

Shelly Walker, an FAA project consultant and TechRepublic member, likes the anonymity features the software provides. Walker has been using GroupSystems for seven years, and the software runs off an NT server with Micron Pentium PCs on Windows 98.

“What I like is that it levels the playing field and allows the quieter team members to ‘speak up’ through typing their input,” she explained. Participants can be candid because the boss is on the same “level,” she added. Ensuring frank employee input can sometimes bring to light serious problems as well as solutions that might not have cropped up in a traditional-style meeting.

While it’s hard to quantify in numbers, Walker believes the higher quality and more diverse input ultimately helps the organization’s bottom line. For example, a shy person who wouldn’t have spoken up in a traditional setting may offer a brilliant proposal for saving money.

Ultimately the increased feedback adds to the productivity level as well. Not only do participants tend to offer more input, but they can also see their ideas recorded and discussed as the meeting progresses.

“And, let’s face it: Nobody likes going to meetings when they have a million other things on their desks. So giving them the opportunity to be more productive makes everyone happy.”

Do you have a better system?

We want to hear about other software used for facilitating meetings. Drop us a line to let us know which meeting facilitation system you prefer.