The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

April 13, 2006

2 Min Read

Everyone has been there: the conference call from hell.  Low quality conference bridge, no organization or agenda, everyone talking at once.  No one hearing anything.  'Twas brillig.

As more and more meetings take place not in person but via a conference call - sometimes with a browser-based visual component, sometimes with slides, sometimes with nothing at all - the conference call itself takes on increasing importance as a medium for collaboration and knowledge sharing.
Most conference call bridges treat all callers as peers.  And, frequently, due to noise and other interruptions, a participant mightn't realize that another person actually has the floor.  Conference calls do not have the formality, say, of a debate on the senate floor ("Will the product manager from the good state of California yield?") and frequently, chaos ensues.

As more and more exchanges take place in this medium, those who host calls should be aware of the medium's foibles and take steps to ensure a smooth flow of information throughout the meeting.  Conference calls themselves usually assume one of two forms: 1.) internal group meeting (such as a product development group) or 2.) meeting of two groups or organizations.

The first type, an internal group meeting, is the more difficult to manage.  Were this to take place in a conference room, it would be apparent to everyone who is speaking, and even sidebars could take place between two individuals without disrupting the overall flow.  A conference call has but one channel - and everyone needs to squeeze into this rather confining bandwidth.  Hence, the host of the meeting needs to actively assume the role of moderator.  One thing we've found that works is to use instant messaging to tell the moderator you have something to say and let him queue speakers.

The second type of meeting is easier to manage.  Each "side" should have a meeting lead, or spokesman, who speaks on behalf of his group.  That lead should also act as a moderator for his own group, acting as a throttle for participants on his side.  In this environment, when run correctly, you'll run the risk of perhaps the two leads speaking at the same time, but will by and large be able to avoid the cacophony that can ensue.

Conference calls are not only here to stay, but likely to become more prevalent as a way of bringing people together.  If we want our meetings to avoid having the slithy toves gyring and gimbling in the wabe, we'll need to undertake a few simple steps to beware the Jabberwock.

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