Although the technology and platforms for teleconferences, webinars and online meetings have improved dramatically in the recent past (Skype, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, and Facilitate.com are just a few examples), the question still comes up: Can virtual training and meetings ever replace the in-person experience?
The answer is, of course, “No.” Before you proponents of virtual meetings begin howling, however, let me say that I also support and use these new technologies. These tools have made it possible for people from around the globe connect and participate in meetings and training that they would otherwise not have access to, and they have allowed me to build relationships with colleagues whom I have never met – in person, that is. I have colleagues with whom I have formed virtual relationships in Pakistan, Spain, Belgium, and Switzerland, not to mention Maryland and South Carolina. I marvel – and am grateful – that this is even possible.
Granted, virtual meeting rooms present certain challenges: It can be difficult to obtain visual clues about how event participants are feeling, their level of engagement, or even who is speaking or wants to speak. It is not only difficult but impossible to engage in the physical actions that contribute to relationship building: Signs of respect such as a handshake, a bow, a kiss on both cheeks, and signs of support and affection such as a hug or even a pat on the shoulder or back. It is also far more challenging to sit on a conference call for eight hours than to sit in a room with a group of people for eight hours.
These gaps can make not only participation and facilitation challenging but can also inhibit valuable bonding and expressions of respect. These challenges require new processes to bridge those gaps and even new etiquette.
It has been very interesting for me to participate in and to help plan a variety of webinars in the last year, and I have observed a lot of creative uses of technology to replace in-person interactions, such as:
- Using “chat” features to give participants the opportunity to introduce themselves;
- Using those same “chat” features and “raise hand” features to allow participants to submit questions;
- Using polling to gather feedback and test knowledge; and
- Using discussion forums to provide participants with an opportunity to interact with one other between and after sessions while digging into and reinforcing the material presented.
A prime example is the new series of courses being presented by Michael F. Broom of The Center for Human Systems. Michael and his colleague, Edie Seashore, have for years been presenting a variety of in-person programs ranging from short workshops to their multi-session Triple Impact Practitioners Program. These programs have been very popular with their participants, but even these in-person programs have a downside: It is challenging for people in all but a few locations to get to them, and it is challenging for the presenters to get to all of the locations where there are people who want to attend.
For this reason, Michael is launching “Making OD Work”, a new series of courses that will be conducted virtually using a combination of technologies. The webinars will be conducted using conferencing software that allows for visual presencing by participants with web cams, presentation of audio-visual aids by the presenter(s), dialogue between the presenter and participants, chat between the presenter, the participants, and subgroups, and small-group breakout sessions. Between webinars, participants will have in-depth discussions via private discussion group software – making possible the deeper exploration of topics, enhanced learning, and relationship building that are hallmarks of in-person events.
Are such events the same as the in-person experience? Of course not. Do they allow for the same duration and intensity as the in-person experience? No. But in this age where the world is getting smaller and smaller and yet we are still often thousands of miles apart, these technologies are making meeting, learning and bonding possible in ways that we could only dream of a few years ago.
What new processes and etiquette would you like to propose to enhance effectiveness and engagement in virtual events?
 In the interest of full disclosure, I am a part of the team that has been developing and promoting this program.