Friday, December 01, 2006

Experiences with Online Conferencing (part 1)

When you don’t know how to ride a bike, walking is always faster!

An online conference call seems like a simple, cheap and accessible way for bringing a distributed group together. As we use our e-collaboration community as a laboratory for experimenting with e-tools, we decided to prepare an upcoming f2f meeting using online teleconferencing. In the first meeting we experimented with High Speed Conferencing. High Speed Conferencing is free and uses a phone bridge that connects both Skype and regular phone users. Having Skype and regular phone users on the same call might be very helpful for international communities.

Experiences with High Speed Conferencing
This online preparation meeting was with eight participants, some of them knew each other quite well, others were joining the group for the first time. We had planned for a one hour meeting. A summary of our experiences:

Phone and Skype. A great advantage of highspeedconferencing is that people can phone in, so that people not used to Skype are not excluded.

Preparation for smooth start. High Speed Conference was a new e-tool for all of us. It was set up by one of our members. The time had been set in advance, participants had been announced. Still, the preparation seemed quite chaotic, it took us some time to get started: checking the connection, contact details, microphone, sound. Illustrative statements in this phase of the meeting were: ‘I do not manage to call this number!’, ‘I see you on Skype, but how do I get in the conversation?’ and ‘Are you online now?’. Lessons we learned:
- It came out to be important for the person-in-the-lead-for-setting-up-the-conference to join the whole conference, and have a specific role in getting everyone on board.
- As a facilitator, try to be online 10 minutes earlier and have all skype addresses in advance, so that you can easily add everyone to the chatspace. When in the chat, it is easier to direct people into the conference.
- It was very helpful to use Skype for providing assistance.

Quality of sound. In this conference we experiences many problems with the quality of sound: a lot of noise in the back, some people sounded very far away and others were so close that it felt like they were sitting right beside you. One person could only join the conversation using chat because we couldn’t hear him. Some statements: ‘sound quality was poor. As if I was trying to receive a BBC broadcast during WW-II. Some people (e.g. John) were easy to follow. Others not at all. Sometimes I heard nothing - but was that a true silence, or was someone speaking without my knowing? Sometimes I heard the noise of a voice, some words I could recognize, others not. It took a lot of energy to listen. I often felt disconnected.’, and ‘the noise made it difficult for me to think and contribute to the conversation, because of the effort it took to hear others and listen carefully.’ Something that might be of help is the ‘mute’ button (‘mute your own line so other people can’t hear you’ and ‘unmute your line so you can contribute to the conference’), but we didn’t try. The facilitator could try the following:”mute all participated and unmute them one by one, to see where some noise was coming from.

Using supporting tools. During the conference we had a few participants taking notes using the chat function in Skype. This was found very useful, especially with the bad quality of sound. It makes it possible to keep up with the dialogue, even when it is hard to hear the talking very well. Remark is that there is always a short delay in the notes compared to the saying. When you really have to rely on the notes it might be difficult to play an active role in the interaction with others. After the conference one of the members sent out the Skype chat transcript for everyone’s reference and use. This makes it possible to reread what has been said, reflect on the conversation, make a summary of the output.

Group size. We found out that there is a big difference between having an online conversation with a group of 4 people or with 8. With four it is easier to recognise voices (know who is speaking), to make everyone contribute to the conversation, define agenda and focus, have a discussion/ dialogue, make decisions. Of course part of these aspects play the same kind of role in a face-to-face meeting. A larger group requires much more structure and facilitation. And specific effort from participants.

Level of security and comfort. A teleconference (using a new technology or for a person unfamiliar with teleconferences) adds to your level of insecurity and discomfort, that you have in new groups. So if you have a new group, you can hardly get people to feel secure enough to get good work done. After all, these are all things that you have to consider while choosing for a f2f meeting, an online asynchronous discussion, a chat or a teleconference. A participant who was new in the group: ‘If it had not been for the explicit remarks that we were dealing with an experiment, I would have felt disappointed about this meeting. It was emotionally stressing. I compare this with meetings a had in South America, were I just started speaking Spanish. Even though I did not understand everything, it did not feel right to keep questioning: 'what do you mean', or 'would you repeat this?'. Still, people might ask for my opinion and expected you to participate in decision making. The experience with skype may be even worse: In the situation of our conference I could not check your faces, there were no lips to be read, no clues from the context. I felt insecure. I was so busy trying to listen that I had no energy left to check with the notes. I did not make notes myself, because I felt insecure about the content-value of what I could add.’’

Role participants. Participants need concentration to follow the dialogue, and focus for contribution, the willingness to express your feelings. In a f2f meeting, when you are confused about something or don’t agree, others will see this by observing you non-verbal signals. Online I felt like having several choices in such a situation: you can leave the dialogue and hitch on again when the content has changed. Or you raise your voice and express your feelings. Interesting observation of one of the participants: ‘I can hear that John has a Skype tone and rhythm of speaking that is slower then he does in face to face conversation.

Make the picture. Because you don’t see each other, you have to rely on the sound of voices. “I found out that, during the conference, I was trying to make an image of the situation (‘the picture’) in my mind, giving the conversation ‘more colour’. The photographs of participants in Skype were very helpful to me. When you know the people who participate, you easily learn to recognize voices. In our conversation we had a new participant; for him it was helpful to say your name before talking. In the beginning this requires specific attention, but I can imagine you will get used to it when doing this more often.”

Facilitation of the conference. As in a f2f meeting, it is very helpful to have someone facilitating the process: setting the agenda, guide the conversation, summarise, stimulate knowledge sharing, focus and decision making, and supporting people to contribute and share their ideas and thoughts. Two concrete methods were helpful in this meeting. Getting to know each other by doing a small introduction round on alphabetical order. You might as well use the clock or the list on the Skype chat.

And closing the meeting doing a short round of summaries or impressions of this meeting. Lessons for next time:
· It helps when someone now and then summarizes what has been said, collects concrete action points, keeps track on time and agenda (focus on content), makes space for all participants to contribute, suggests methods that are helpful for sharing ideas, thinking together, and coming up with new ideas.
· What we experienced in this online meeting is that the conversation can ‘drop dead’ like we all are thinking by ourselves. Till some point it is okay, but when it starts feeling uncomfortable…Maybe here is a task for the facilitator to give the conversation new energy, by giving a summary, asking a new question, doing a proposal.

What are the advantages of an online meeting above f2f meetings?
In international communities or groups with members geographically dispersed, an online meeting might be a very effective way of having contact, sharing thoughts, working together. When you can choose whether meeting up in a f2f meeting or online, it seems that online teleconferencing tools bridge the distance, but do not speed up the conversation or decision making process. You might take some more time, and another type of energy and facilitation for an online meeting. In our experience it felt like the amount of work completed in an online meeting is less than in a f2f meeting. On the other hand it costs less effort for us to meet online.

Questions worthwhile for further experiments:
· What can help build relationship, sense of individuals and of the group?
· How to deal with those periods of silence in the meeting?
· Practices around who is speaking (i.e. say your name before speaking - not everyone can hear voice differences)
· Issues around size of the group: what size is maximum, how to handle larger groups?
· …

Interesting links:
· Nancy's Telephone Call Facilitation Tips
· John Smith's Meeting on a Telephone Bridge
· Npower's Running Effective Online Trainings
· Kate Pugh's Good practice for phone-based CoP teleconferences
· Tips for Teleconference Participants
· Tips for Teleconference Leaders
· Proven, Practical Tips for Conference Calls

Experiences from: Joitske Hulsebosch, Mirjam Schaap, Russell Kerkhoven, Steven Scheer, Maarten Boers, Simon Koolwijk, Angelica Senders, John Smith, Sibrenne Wagenaar


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