Chapter 18. Facilitation of the Future How Virtual Meetings Are Changing the Work of the Facilitator

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Lori Bradley

Michael Beyerlein

Many meetings today occur across boundaries of geography,

company, and culture rather than face-to-face. The situation

has changed, and that means that facilitation has changed. Or has it?

That is the topic that this chapter discusses: how facilitation changes

when the meeting is virtual.

Today’s organizations exist in a complex climate of intense competition and fastpaced,

quickly changing global markets. It has become imperative for organizations

to adapt quickly in order to thrive. Business reorganizations, large-scale

change projects, and mergers and acquisitions have become the norm rather than

the exception as companies struggle to maintain the flexibility required to succeed.

Given the events of September 11, 2001, the downturn in the economy, and the

rapid advances in communication and information technology, many organizations

have begun to outsource a number of organizational functions. Outsourcing

has created networks of loosely connected organizational entities (LeMay,

2000). These networks, with their resulting porous boundaries, have become a

popular response to the challenging business environment as a way for organizations

to maximize intellectual capital, employee talent, and synergy and minimize

travel costs, relocation expenses, and disruption to employees’ lives (Bal and Teo,

2001). Also, networks allow organizations to (LeMay, 2000):

• Share facilities and resources

• Share core competencies and expertise

• Share risk and infrastructure costs

• Respond more quickly to opportunities

• Share markets, customers, and market loyalties

• Create synergies that result in innovative solutions

Virtual networks assume many forms. They may be temporary networks of independent

companies, suppliers, customers, even rivals (LeMay, 2000). They may

range from a quickly deployed response team formed around a problem or issue

and then just as quickly disbanded, to a stable and enduring team that works together

regularly and over longer periods of time. Virtual networks are creating a

new corporate model that is fluid, flexible, and adaptable—able to come together

quickly to respond to business opportunities and morph itself into the best configuration

possible (LeMay, 2000).

People involved in a virtual collaborative enterprise are often referred to as virtual

teams (VTs). A virtual team is usually made up of members separated by geographical

distance, sometimes sufficiently distant as to be in different time zones.

Team members may also be from different organizational departments or even different

organizations (Duarte and Snyder, 2001). Success depends on the ability of

the group to communicate and collaborate effectively, and in a VT, that communication

takes place using technology.Much of this collaboration takes place in virtual

meetings, defined here as any meeting in which the participants are not all

physically present in the same location, but may be connected through videoconferencing,

teleconferencing, or Web conferencing (Internet) technology. Geographical

and time zone differences often present significant barriers for effective

communication and can be especially challenging when high levels of collaboration

are sought. According to LeMay (2000), flatter organizational structures may

enhance organizational efficiency, but having employees dispersed geographically

and organizationally makes collaboration and management much more difficult.

The power of collaboration comes from inclusion—specifically, including all

relevant stakeholders (Straus, 2002). Research has shown that teams that effectively

use the knowledge and resources of a number of organizational units are more creative

than teams working within a limited and defined functional area (Creighton

and Adams, 1998).When the full range of existing interests and varied points of

view is involved in solving problems or making decisions, the solution is likely to

be more comprehensive and creative than if a small group of like-minded individuals

acted on its own (Straus, 2002). Increased support for decisions and increased

likelihood of implementation are fortunate by-products of effectively

involving all appropriate stakeholders.

As organizational management focuses more on teams rather than individuals,

ensuring that the organization has an effective system of collaboration becomes a

survival factor. Historically, much of the collaborative process took place in faceto-

face meetings where two or more people worked together on their shared project.

Creighton and Adams (1998) found that meetings are the most frequent form

of collaboration and that both meetings and collaboration are crucial to project

success. Yet effective collaboration is made more complex when the virtual meetings

substitute for face-to-face meetings.

According to Attaran and Attaran (2002), companies in the United States were

turning to videoconferencing, teleconferencing, and Web conferencing to reduce

travel costs even before the 2001 terrorist attacks; since then, the adoption rate of

these virtual tools has dramatically increased. The Web conferencing market

especially has seen aggressive growth, with vendors reporting interest levels up

more than 50 percent since the attacks. For example, immediately after September

11, 2001, PlaceWare saw a 40 percent increase in business. It was subsequently

acquired by Microsoft Corporation, and its Web conferencing software is the core

of its new product, Office Live Meeting, which displaced NetMeeting. Recognizing

the emerging importance of virtual collaboration,Microsoft created a business

division, the Real-Time Collaboration Business Unit, dedicated to marketing

and developing tools to support virtual collaboration.

While organizations are attracted to the concept of working virtually for the

convenience and savings in time and travel costs, the challenges in maintaining expected

levels of performance and supporting virtual collaboration are considerable.

Some of the most commonly cited frustrations related to working virtually

involve technology and the inability to hold efficient and productive virtual meetings

(Anderson, Ashraf, Douther, and Jack, 2001; Fels and Weiss, 2000;Whittaker,

1995).With the recent and rapid advances in technology capable of connecting

large numbers of globally dispersed people, meetings can take on various

Facilitation of the Future 297

forms and a daunting new level of complexity. Here are a few examples from our

experience:

• A group of eight regional managers for an airline conduct a weekly conference

call to share updates and review performance statistics for each of the airline’s regions.

• A staff of human resource executives located at corporate headquarters

conducts a virtual interview with a job candidate by videoconference. The job candidate

is at a videoconference facility at a branch office.

• A team of industry professionals that is creating a presentation for an

upcoming conference e-mails drafts to each other for editing and holds weekly

teleconference meetings. They will meet each other in person for the first time

thirty minutes before their joint presentation.

• Forty-five credit card company application designers, dispersed among four

different international sites, edit and review a document that outlines business system

requirements for a new project. They use group editing software to view and make

changes to a document that they view simultaneously. They use videoconferencing

technology to communicate with each other as they work on the document.

• A project team made up of engineers from three aviation companies meets

to discuss the design and manufacture of an airplane component. They are connected

by a videoconference except for the employees of company A, who must

teleconference into the meeting. They cannot share documents because of company

B’s firewall. Company C’s employees cannot be present when certain details

of the project are discussed due to competition on an unrelated project.

These examples should make it obvious that while no two situations are identical,

what most VTs have in common is the complexity of their meetings, their

topics, and their infrastructures. Traditional meeting skills may not be enough for

successful virtual meetings.

Connell (2002) suggests that technology has evolved so rapidly that organizations

are challenged to catch up with the human factors. The challenge becomes

the ability to perform at the level the technology will allow without compromising

the quality of the interaction and the work of the team members. The bulk of

a VT’s real-time interaction happens during virtual meetings; thus, it is critically

important that these go well. It is in the best interest of any organization using VTs

to design and conduct virtual meetings as effectively as possible.

The fastest route to improved virtual meetings may be with a skilled virtual

meeting facilitator who has the requisite knowledge, skill, and experience.However,

there is a dearth of research specifically investigating virtual meeting effectiveness.

Organizational leaders, meeting participants, and facilitators currently depend on

their general knowledge of organizational theory, group facilitation, and an understanding

of group dynamics to support them in managing virtual employees

and projects (Connell, 2002). Clearly, this is an area ripe for study.