The face to face meeting and the book have an awful lot in common, I think. I mean, They (the mysterious They) have been announcing the Death of The Book for years now, declaring the supremacy of the internet and the rise of e-print. And yet. Books live on. Face to face meetings are in the same situation right now, with lots of outcry about how there are too many of them, and the internet age should and will replace them with something better. And maybe that’s true, but it’s not here yet.
I think it’s safe to say that we, librarians, all have too many meetings. I know I sure do. This week’s pretty gentle, with only 4 (less than one per day! woo!), but last week I had 8, and there are some days where I have back-to-back meetings for 5 hours. It’s no wonder I feel like there’s not enough time to do my work. And not all meetings are effective or efficient. Sometimes they’re a tool used to obfuscate processes, stall decision making, and generally stymie good work, all of which Michelle points out and I cannot argue with.
The problem is that sometimes a meeting isn’t the right thing to do — but sometimes it is. Sometimes a face to face meeting is redundant in the face of the communications that can be done online. And sometimes it’s not. (Meredith does a lovely job of elaborating on this, in this post from earlier this summer.)
I just left a 90 minute meeting that I called and chaired, in which five librarians finished up discussion and decisions on two ongoing projects. Did we need to have a face-to-face meeting do to this? No, but yes. Why? We could have done it all by email, on our wiki, or over a chat client, but we didn’t, and that was my choice. I chose face-to-face because (I believe) we needed a certain community feeling and consensus about these decisions that could, with this group, only be gotten through face-to-face conversation and affirmation. I decided that it was best for our sense of communal work and need to hear and voice our opinions to have our meeting in person.
I also, while in that meeting, used my wireless laptop to schedule a second meeting in which we will do those same things for a different project — come to communal decisions and affirmation of our goals — while creating a wiki page for the conversation to begin online before that meeting. And then I used email to formally communicate those actions to the group of people sitting around me at the conference table, as a tangible reminder when they returned to their offices of what we’d agreed upon in our meeting. (All while listening and contributing to the ongoing discussion; I am the Queen of Multitasking.)
Because, though meetings are time-consuming, and consensus-building is hard, and technology is a great tool to improve efficiency, it’s my experience that there’s no black and white. There are no easy answers, no “online only is our new motto” or “we must meet in person or it’s not a real decision”, just a lot of gray areas and combinations of the two. What I’m learning as I experiment with both models is that, for this group of people, our effectiveness increases the more we integrate the traditional and the innovative. We’re not abandoning the consensus approach and the extensive conversational feedback model that the organization is built on and accustomed to, but we’re shifting some of the conversation and feedback to online venues and streamlining some of the decision-making processes with technology tools. In time our processes may swing in one direction or the other, but for now, despite my love for online communications, I’m going to remain guilt-free about the meetings I schedule. They’re not dead yet.**