The future of meetings

Written by Rick Spence

Could technology eliminate the need for meetings?

You wish. Meetings are here to stay, says tech expert Michael Furdyk, because people still prefer to meet in person. But new technologies such as VoIP, WiFi and interactive videoconferencing will certainly change the way people exchange information.

In fact, technology might add more meetings to your schedule, says Furdyk, who spoke to Meeting Professionals International in Toronto this past summer. By encouraging people to meet ‘virtually,’ new technologies could generate new meetings, such as more frequent global management meetings or brainstorming sessions. “No type of meeting will be extinct,” says Furdyk, “but a lot of meetings won’t require travel.”

Furdyk knows meetings. Although just 23, he has been mastering technology since he was 17. In 1999, he and some friends sold their first online business, Toronto-based MyDesktop.com, for $1 million. He and partner Jennifer Corriero now run TakingITGlobal.com, an association that connects 84,000 technology entrepreneurs around the world. Consulting for corporations such as Microsoft and IBM, Furdyk participates in global conferences such as the World Economic Forum.

The biggest change in meetings today, says Furdyk, is the growth of WiFi — high-speed wireless Internet connectivity — in offices and hotels. Two years ago, only people with BlackBerrys were checking e-mail during your presentation; now, anyone with a wireless PDA or laptop can do it.

The bad news: you can no longer expect most people in the room are listening to your presentation. The good: the need to wrestle “ambient listeners” away from the Internet will force speakers to become more animated and audience-focussed.

The best speakers will actually use wireless connectivity to encourage participation, says Furdyk. Some bring their wireless PCs to the podium and invite real-time questions. Furdyk has attended speeches where audience members Googled facts cited by the speaker, and debated the presenter while the speech was going on. “It is changing the dynamics of conferences,” he says. “People are looking for interactive value. They don’t want to see someone read off their slides; they can download that from the Internet.”

Here are other new technologies Furdyk says will revolutionize conferences:

  • Social networking: New self-serve registration kiosks can help you identify the people you need to meet — and learn which sessions they’re attending. “You can view the attendee list,” says Furdyk, “and make plans to run into the people you want to meet.”
  • Audience response: Technology that lets speakers survey the audience isn’t new, but it’s rarely used. However, Furdyk says he is now seeing more conferences use electronic feedback (i.e., touch pads at each seat) to establish goals and set agendas: “The technology is getting cheaper and easier to use.”
  • Blogs: Organizers of major conferences are starting to generate online diaries in which participants write about the day’s activities. Following these blogs will help you understand what’s going on at the conference, revise session selections and identify new prospects.
  • Digital pens: Do you come home from meetings with pages of notes you can barely read? For $100, you can buy a digital pen that converts your handwritten notes into Word documents, making them much more accessible. (Note: you’ll need special paper, too.) Furdyk says some conferences will encourage attendees to “post” their digital notes, so others can read their interpretations.
  • Infinite audiences: Many companies offer audio CDs to members who can’t travel to a conference. In future, stay-at-homes will be able to buy “live” access to meetings, through video-conferencing software. They may even be able to ask questions.
  • Virtual meetings: New technology such as Apple’s H.264 standard will deliver higher-quality video over the Net, enabling higher-resolution video feeds from up to four users. Furdyk has begun holding regular online videoconferences with his TakingITGlobal colleagues in the U.S., Argentina and Russia. No high-tech needed: participants pass a webcam-equipped laptop around the room so they can see their counterparts around the world (and be seen) while they’re talking.

Furdyk says this technology is encouraging TakingITGlobal to hold more staff meetings to build broader consensus and stronger team spirit. Many firms have paid hundreds of dollars an hour for videoconferencing, says Furdyk; with today’s new hardware and VOIP phone service, they can meet online — and review presentations or conduct training sessions — almost for free.

© 2005 Rick Spence

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com