Friday, August 24, 2012

The Key to Lively, Productive Meetings

We've spent a lot of time and energy working with our users and vendor to make Confer a great tool for online instructors, with good results. The Confer classroom is equipped with assessment tools, interactive tools for collaboration, and terrific content presentation options. You can teach comfortably and effectively with this toolset, and I'm happy to report that they're getting better as we listen to and respond to your feedback.

At about this time last year, though, I started thinking about how CCC Confer is used by our community (myself included) when students aren't involved. Half of our business comes from Meet & Confer and Call Confer sessions. What have we done to make their meetings more effective? Are there tools we should be adding that will make life easier for those of us who meet regularly online? Is it possible to use technology to enhance meetings, inspire creative idea sharing, sort shared ideas, move people toward consensus, produce action plans, and record proceedings? Can we do for online meeting facilitators what we've managed to do for online instructors: make their jobs easier and more productive?

We think so. We've just added a new tool - CCC Brainstorm - to bolster our online meeting tools. Here's a short (one minute) introduction:

The software is powered by FacilitatePro and licensed to the California Community Colleges through an agreement with CCC Confer. You can use it online or face-to-face, synchronously or asynchronously, according to your meeting needs and circumstances. You can learn more about Facilitate by downloading this document, but I'll summarize some key features here.

Shared Agenda. Brainstorm lets everyone see the agenda you've prepared from a Web browser. The advantage here is that the agenda is interactive: by clicking on each agenda item, they can view the ideas that have been shared, react to them, and add their own.

Brainstorming. Everyone in the meeting can add ideas - at the same time - without raising their hands or waiting for anyone else to finish. The ideas dynamically appear on the screen as they are added and generate a sense of collaboration and interaction that is often difficult to produce in overly structured group meetings.

Expansion and Elaboration. As ideas are added, meeting participants can add their own comments and explain, enlarge, or develop those ideas with comments that are added in line with the original ideas. Imagine trying to do this with a standard flip chart! The ideas might end up on a separate page or "shrink-written" on the margins, with the predictable and all-too-common result of being incomprehensible to anyone trying to make sense of it later.

Sorting into Categories. An active and engaged meeting can generate a lot of ideas. These can be sorted into categories as they are added or later, allowing the participants to recognize emerging themes or to distinguish and appreciate how the ideas fit into possible solutions.

Building Consensus. It's easy to take a list of brainstormed ideas and ask meeting participants to "vote" on them or rate them according to some criterion. For example, you can ask them to indicate their degree of agreement about a proposed strategy, and even to comment about why or why not this idea makes sense. This happens in seconds: it's amazing how quickly the software allows a group to recognize its own voice and come to agreement about the issues being discussed.

The result can be graphed - again, instantly - and shared in real time with the group. This is far more effective than the Confer polling tool, which is great for impromptu questions. This tool actually presents a detailed vote breakdown, statistical results, and graphs for your entire list of ideas. The summary table shows overall votes, weighted averages, and standard deviations.

Action Planning. As great as it is to generate ideas and come to consensus, a good meeting isn't complete unless it results in action. The CCC Brainstorm software includes an on-screen action planner, which makes it easy to set goals, give them start and finish dates, assign them to individuals or groups, and display the action plan in a time chart. The software includes standard project management features: responsibility, start and end dates, status information for each item, and a graphical time chart display. It's not meant to replace project management software, but it will export your action plan into those applications once you've got the group to focus on next steps.

Complete Meeting Report. No need to take minutes or transcode illegible flip charts! With this tool, you - or anyone in the meeting - can instantly print a report that will include, in an attractive package, tabulated results and every one of the ideas and plans your group has produced. It's also possible to import this report into a word processor so it can be incorporated into a larger document.

We're just getting started on the video tutorials for this product, but you'll find enough to get started on our YouTube playlist.

Meanwhile, here's wishing you better meetings this year!
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