Harnessing live online learning

2011 Research Study into Virtual Learning

My instinct is always to mistrust and challenge statistics. If you read my April 2010 blog Straight and Crooked Thinking, then you’ll recognise why I say this. But, I have just finished reading Harnessing Online Learning, a benchmark report by Towards Maturity, for Redtray. I am surprised to find myself so ready to accept its compelling findings and the conclusions that it reaches.

Devil’s Advocate

The voice of The Devil’s Advocate is seldom silent. It’s running a script in my head right now – first, the much quoted, “There are lies, dammed lies and statistics”, most commonly associated with Mark Twain. Then the much misquoted, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” which was the response of the notorious Mandy Rice Davies to Lord Astor’s denial that he had ever met her. Nevertheless, fearlessly fired by the TM report, I’ll make two bold assertions:

  1. The benefits of live online learning are proven, (“Lies, damned lies and statistics”, says The Voice).
  2. More organisations should be doing it, and doing it better, too! (I’ll declare an interest -Onlignment is a supplier of advice and skill development in this area, so, go on Voice, “He would (say that), wouldn’t he?”).

I’ve pre-empted the objections and got my retaliation in first, because it would be an opportunity lost if scepticism were to cloud (deliberate choice of word) the significance of the trends that Towards Maturity has charted. Let’s open up the report and delve a little deeper behind the headlines.

The accelerated pace of adoption

Should we be surprised that the adoption of live online technology for communication and learning has accelerated? I think not – after all the logistical and ecological arguments have always been there – travel is costly, potentially dangerous, time-consuming and inconvenient. Global organisations with a dispersed workforce find it awkward to bring people together for training and to improve operational effectiveness. We all must protect the Planet.

The absence of “hard data”

TM’s report has some numbers to validate these long-held assumptions. And yet those numbers are a measure of individuals’ perceptions. The Report expressed “shock” that only 13% of respondents were able to quantify even the simplest of comparative cost-benefits with hard data. How much had they saved on travel and subsistence; how many hours of trainers’ and learners’ productive time? I was not shocked, especially when I reminded myself that the people who had given their time and opinions to this survey came from L&D, a fraternity that is not best known for its capacity to translate its product (training) into tangible, desirable benefits with indisputable numbers attached.

Declarations of faith

Still there were the conclusions for all to find. “What have you L&D advocates and enthusiastic adopters of live online learning done for your organisations?” one might ask. And what answer should we expect? Shall we hear, “Dunno?”, or shall we hear, “We’ve DEFINITELY reduced travel time and costs (more than 40% of us); we’ve COMPREHENSIVELY opened access to more learners (42%), we’ve EMPHATICALLY reduced the costs of training (35%), and SERIOUSLY improved the quality of training (23%).”

Hopes and expectations

The Poet warned us:

“Between the idea and the reality… falls the Shadow.”

T.S. Eliot. The Hollow Men.

In the TM Benchmark Report, 57% hoped to reduce the overall costs of training; 35% claimed to have achieved it. 66% aspired to improve the quality of training; 23% believed they have done so. Separate the reality from the idea, and what you have left is a profound belief that almost 1 in 4 users of live online technology for learning have raised the quality of training in their organisations, while reducing the cost. Worth having? I’d say so! Separate the fact from the opinion and there, gnawing into my consciousness is The Voice, asking me to show what criteria define “quality” and what measures “improvement” in these people’s estimation.

Factors getting in the way of success

An examination of the obstacles that seem to prevent organisations from using live online learning is revealing. Experienced users and newcomers alike recognised and reported on a gap in the skills of trainers. New initiatives were frustrated by the negative expectations of a target population. They had been disappointed by unsuccessful earlier forays by suppliers (presumably internal) who were not ready or equipped to manage the change. This makes very good reading indeed for one who supplies, as Onlignment does, direction, training, coaching and confidence-building in the areas of online learning and communication. But don’t shoot the messenger! This is the first time an unbiased and scientific report on this scale (180 participants from a range of organisational backgrounds) has been done in the UK. We should be glad of it, and look forward to regular updates to see how robust the forecasts will have been. If it is true (and I’d like to predict it is an under-statement) that the use of virtual classrooms is set to increase dramatically in the next 18 months, then we’d all better get on with preparing our tables in the face of “reluctance to shift to virtual” (52% in the Public sector), and despite anxiety about the security of “The Cloud” (variously between 43% and 75%).

The “old dispensation”

Apocryphal tales of success will help; sufficient volumes of Good News stories will make Live Online Learning feel more like a “Movement” and less like an organisational “lifestyle choice”. More than that, the conspicuous airing and sharing of ideas, examples and innovative approaches is likely to inspire others to broaden their concept of what you can do with these tools. Eliot’s poetry comes to mind again; this time I think of “The Journey of the Magi”, where he describes the kings returning to their homes, no longer at ease with the way things used to be done, and the people that are still doing them the old way.

“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.”

T.S. Eliot “The Journey of the Magi”

The report shows that there are still lots of presentations, demonstrations and briefings going on. I want to stimulate, see, copy and share great ways of working live online to engage, enthuse and commit people to learn from tutors, peers and materials, and to build together new and better ways of doing their jobs. Behind those assertions that the quality of training was improved, I detect a shift towards live online learning being a prompt to check that “L&D” is delivering what learners need, and not just what Training is best-placed to deliver. I want to identify and congratulate those with the vision and courage to embrace live online learning as a new rubric.

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

We need to hear more from the pioneers who are discovering ways of intensifying the learner experience online rather than making compromises to mirror the old way of doing things and shoehorn unsuitable teaching and learning transactions into an unnatural medium. Most of all, we need a steady flow of believable numbers, but not just to show comparative cost- saving. I can deliver rubbish to you fast and efficiently, or slow and laboriously; which would you prefer? I want to see the £, $ and EUR recovered through increased optimism, improved efficiency and operational effectiveness.

We can’t go on meeting like this – Part 9 Record Meetings

Keep a record of the meeting and its outputs

It is uncommon for an audio recording to be made of a face-to-face meeting (unless you have to make such a record for legal compliance as in a police interview). Online, however, it is very common to make a complete recording of everything including audio, video, presentation materials and contemporaneous text chat.

If you do set the session to record, remember to let everyone know at the start that it is to be saved and may be reviewed by others who are not present at the live meeting.

The session recording may be a very useful asset for someone who ought to have taken part but was unable to do so. However, for those who did take part, it is necessary to provide some more concise record of key decisions and actions.

In a virtual meeting, just as face-to-face, the recording of information can be achieved in various ways:

  • people can take their own notes and optionally share and consolidate them at the end (this is done through the so-called back channel (chat) in a virtual classroom, but may also be done on paper if preferred)
  • as a background activity by a nominated scribe who uses a continuous chat or notes window to capture the key points from and for everyone
  • as a conspicuous building of shared information that lets people validate and verify what is noted

By making the notes conspicuous, on a whiteboard that everyone can see, you gain some advantages:

  • people have a place to focus their attention
  • speakers can check how accurately their words were understood and recorded
  • whiteboards can be saved and brought to the next meeting
  • a whieboard may be originated in one sub-group (in a virtual breakout room) and then presented to another
  • speakers feel vindicated by seeing their words in print
  • the group can think more effectively when they can see proposals and ideas in print
  • people will not become overwhelmed by the need to skim and scan a large volume of text – some of which may be relevant and some of which may not
  • people will not be distracted by keeping an eye on a volume of text in the “back channel” at the expense of losing concentration on the task in hand

What should you record?

There are several types of information that can be recorded. You miss an opportunity if you fail to capture the key points of discussions and the ideas in a brainstorm. In a typical face-to-face meeting, the facilitator may designate separate flipcharts for Action Items, Decisions, and Parking Lot. In a virtual meeting such as WebEx, you can do the same thing by preparing a whiteboard for each as follows:

  • Action Plan: This is the place to record the items people have agreed to take responsibility for after the meeting. Be sure to record the item, the person’s name and when the item is due (what, who, by when).
  • Decisions: This chart records the agreements reached at your meeting. Writing decisions on a whiteboard or in chat notes lets all participants confirm their common understanding of what has been agreed.
  • Parking Lot: The Parking Lot (sometimes known as the “Bin”, “The Trap” or “Issues”) is a place to record ideas, questions, or future agenda items. This board helps to avoid subverting the agenda onto side issues by deferring them to another time. This records the issue so that at a later date the decision can be made to include it on a future agenda.

Tips for Recording

  • Record the main thrust of an idea.
  • Don’t paraphrase or try to correct – use the speaker’s own words.
  • Check with the speaker that what you’ve written reflects what they’ve said.
  • Let all agree that abbreviations and misspellings are tolerable.
  • Type as fast as you can but ask the group to slow down if you fall behind.
  • If possible use bullets, numbers or contrasting colours to separate one point form another.
  • Put the topic and date at the head of the script.
  • At the end of the meeting, copy and paste the text into a document with numbered pages.
  • If things are moving too fast, nominate more than one recorder.

Some of the drawbacks of recording online meetings

Being present at a live meeting has obvious advantages. You can affect the pace and direction of the meeting. You can ask and answer questions, make comments, share items on your desktop or on the Web, and take part in polls and surveys.

If your only access to the same meeting is via an archived recording you soon come to regret the loss of those advantages.

What is more, those little dips in signal strength, slips of the tongue and minor errors that passed without comment in the live meeting become an irritant in the recording. A live audience understands that you may need to cough or consult your notes, but everyone expects a recording to be of an agreeable standard.

It is rare for the recoding of an online meeting to undergo any post-production work to tidy up the sequencing and optimise the sound quality. In most cases it is not technically possible to do this even if you had the time and motivation. Some recordings are saved as flash movies or in .mp3 format so thay can be played in any media player. Some can only be played in the environment of the web-conferencing software. Often the audio is compressed to keep the files small. What might have been poor quality sound in the first place is further degraded. When different speakers have used microphones during the live event, there is bound to be some variation in clarity and volume which seems exaggerated when you listen to the recording.

In a live session you may filter out instructions about how to use the web-conferencing interface. You may be prepared to wait as everyone else catches up with polls and surveys. The person viewing the recording can only passively observe these interactions and so is unlikely to keep engaged for the same period of time as they might have done in the live meeting.

If some part of the meeting includes an important and reusable presentation then we’d recommend you publish that in some medium other than the archived recording of a live session.

A narrated PowerPoint may be preferable, using a plug-in such as Articulate or Adobe Presenter. This allows you to make points brief and to the point. If you have taken care to label each sldie and include notes, your audience can find and navigate easily to the information they want.

Because it is not a live broadcast recording, you can work with prompts or a script, make corrections and edit your presentation and audio so that the recording is to a more professional standard and users can focus on the message instead of defects in the delivery.

Similarly we ‘d suggest the action plans, parking lot, decisions taken and so on be recorded in a more natural format i.e. as electronic documents.

What next?

In the final part of this ten-part series we’ll talk about what to do at the end of a meeting to keep people informed, engaged and feeling positive about their next online meeting. We’ll post it in a few days time, so that there is time to collect views and feedback to include in a plenary blog. We do you will come back.

We’re hoping you will continue to add your own ideas to this blog and all the previous items too. If we can create of it something that is representative of the experience of a wide range of practitioners, it will help us all to understand what works and what doesn’t.

We can’t go on meeting like this – Part 8 Manage Groups Online

Manage group dynamics online, keeping everyone involved and on-track

Dealing with people in groups

An experienced facilitator should be aware of how and why people react as they do in groups and know how to deal with the dynamics.

Establishing authority

An effective leader establishes and maintains personal credibility because he or she:

  • is prepared
  • obtains information about the participants, their accomplishments, behaviour, styles and preferences in advance
  • manages the meeting environment sensibly
  • displays effective communication and presentation skills
  • uses questioning skills and techniques effectively
  • responds properly to all calls for clarification or feedback
  • provides positive reinforcement and motivational incentives for contributions at the meeting
  • evaluates the inputs and outcomes of the meeting
  • reports and acts upon evaluation information.

Pecking order

It happens, not only with hens but also with other animals (including humans). A real or symbolic contest between two opponents determines who is allowed to ‘peck’ with whom. When a new member joins, there is unrest until a new contest determines the new member’s place in the group.

As long as the group is working out who’s who, it gets in the way of settling down to work. If participants know nothing about each other, it is difficult for them to know where they stand in relation to each other. That is why a facilitator will always try to ensure people have been properly introduced to one another as early and as rapidly as possible. An obvious opportunity is some kind of round­ the (virtual) table introduction.

Something else for the facilitator to consider is the extent to which groups soon appear to feel and think alike. ‘Behavioural norms’ are developing, and although usually unspoken, they may go as far as determining how much work will be done, when and by whom.

Getting to know everyone

It is important to know as much as you can about who will take part, before you design the meeting:

  • demographics – age, gender and so on
  • prior knowledge of the topic of the meeting, their attitude to it, and what special knowledge, information or insight they can bring along
  • any personal agendas, coloured by the demands and priorities of their particular jobs and careers
  • Whether they have the confidence, intellect and authority to wrestle with a problem by themselves
  • Whether they prefer to use others as a sounding board and compare opposing arguments before reaching a conclusion
  • Their attitude towards meeting online rather than face-to-face

You cannot expect everyone to thrive in a free-form, exploratory, fast-moving process for reaching resolutions. Conversely, if you hinder them or slow them down, the creative or spontaneous thinker may withdraw. A great benefit of the mixing of synchronous and asynchronous elements into meetings is that it plays to the stengths of both ends of the spectrum.

An online meeting may present information in a visual way while text or speech is happening in the background. People differ in their “perceptual modality”. This means the primary senses through which they prefer to receive information – text, audio, imagery, touch, and so on. As long as they do not suffer from some physical or psychological impairment, people are quite capable of accepting sensory input in in any number of ways, whether or not it is their method of choice. Take care with how you mix modality, for example, don’t read text aloud to people who can read it for themselves. In part 6 of this series, we dealt with the use and combination of media elements to get your message across.

Roles within groups

“Some”, says the bard, “have greatness thrust upon them”. Roles in a group may be actively chosen or thrust upon one who passively accepts it under pressure or because no one else will. One person may assume more than one role.

Active roles (apart from the facilitator):

  1. Workers
  2. Fighters

Passive roles:

  1. Favourites
  2. Idiots
  3. Conformists
  4. Outsiders
  5. Scapegoats

Workers are an uncomfortable reminder of what all other members ought to achieve if only they tried. It is taken on by one who is more intelligent or a higher performer than the others and not prepared to go at the pace of the slowest. Some in this role of worker are driven to be best at everything.


Bolsterd by the respect of the group for speaking their minds, fighters may take every chance to challenge or annoy the facilitator.


Favourites usually communicate best. They seem to know everything about the group members. Others confide in them. They are more likely to be seen guiding and counselling than assuming the role of leader.


Idiots struggle to work hard, but accomplish little. They respond by loudly entertaining or volunteering to do helpful jobs in order to win approval. When someone throws themselves enthusiastically into using mark-up tools to doodle across your slides or whiteboard, you know with whom you are dealing.


Conformists keep their heads down and may not challenge or defend a point of view. Usually they wait for the power struggle to end and then join the unofficial leader. They avoid confrontation. They may be consistently last to post a comment or opinion in “chat”.


‘Innocents’ may be nudged into the position of outsider against their will. Typically introvert, they may have joined the group later than the others and have crossed boundaries they did not even know existed. A skilful facilitator should recognise these outsiders and tactfully help them back into the group.

‘Mr Nasty’ types become outsiders simply because they are unpleasant and create friction. Once exposed they are ostracised, and you are unlikely to succeed in bringing them back into the fold.

‘Mr Superior’ is high on intelligence but low on social and emotional skills. Always one step ahead and extremely arrogant, this person has no desire to form part of the group. ‘Mr Superior’ can create tension, interfere with motivation and productivity, and spoil the atmosphere in a group. It is often best to address them through private chat, or contact them off-line and confront their destructive behaviour.


A group that feels frustrated by low challenge, or dominated by the facilitator may punish the weakest member. Members try to empathise and suppress negative impulses like envy and rivalry. But when they need to let off steam, they may channel their energies into aggression. The spirit and structure of the group comes under threat. The weakest member of the group becomes a target. Sometimes the pressure is heavy and sustained.

Time and numbers

You would not normally expect an online meeting to last more than 90 minutes. Longer sessions require breaks and may validly be paused for an agreed interval to allow the completion of offline tasks arising during the live meeting, and then resumed.

Some experts believe that, given the extra burdens on online facilitators, you should aim for no more than 75% of the numbers you would invite to the equivalent face-to-face meeting.

The magic number 12

Groups of more than 12 people invariably split into into closely knit pairs or threesomes, and that means more than one unofficial leader emerges.

Large groups give the opportunity for shrinking violets to appear to contribute but avoid showing through practise that they are ready to adjust their behaviour!

People need sufficient time to reflect, explain and justify their thinking. The more people in the group, the longer it takes to reach understanding and give feedback.

Roles in managing an online meeting

If you have a large group, the topic is complex, the agenda is unlike any you’ve managed before or you are relatively inexperienced as a facilitator, consider working with a ‘producer’.

The producer is not concerned with the content of the online meeting. Their job is to make sure you can concentrate on your job as a process facilitator, by making sure the sessions run smoothly.

The producer keeps an eye on everything during discussion; welcomes participants, handles technical questions and problems, responds to messages and manages the chat, launches surveys, breakout rooms and shared apps, acts as a scribe on the whiteboard.

The producer role does not need to be an expensive resource.

Alternatively, consider spreading the facilitation load with one or more other facilitators, or handing over specific tasks to participants who are experienced at meeting online, have the capability to help with a task and know what is expected.

When Emotions Get in the Way

When you are face-to-face it may be easy to spot when someone is holding back from telling you how they are feeling. The harder they try to conceal their upset, worry, anger or even happiness, the more likely it is that their body and tone will reveal the truth.

This brings to mind the work of Albert Mehrabian. His point seems to be that words, tone of voice and facial expression each influence how we feel about the person who is speaking, and the authenticity of their message.

The suggestion is that a listener will be taking non-verbal cues as a more reliable guide to underlying feelings, attitudes and motives than the actual words themselves. If the words are at odds with the tone of voice and facial expression, people tend to mistrust the speaker and disregard the words.

This is not the same as the false conclusion that only 7% of what you say is communicated through words! This is important to note because one of the most damaging arguments against meeting or learning online is this very misconception that you cannot get a message across if someone cannot see and hear you.

Nevetheless Mehrabian’s “7% verbal -38% vocal -55% visual” rule has relevance in that participants and facilitators may need to take other points of reference to test the true feelings, attitudes or motives of someone who is expressing their likes and dislikes in an online meeting.

* Mehrabian, Albert (1971), “Silent messages,” Wadsworth, Belmont, California.


McDavid J., Harari H. Psychology and Social Behavior: A Textbook in Social Psychology, HarperCollins Publishers, 1974.

Harvey, J.B. The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management, Jossey-Bass, 1996.

What next?

Part nine of this ten-part series is about keeping a record of an online meeting and its outputs. We’ll discuss what to archive, and how and when. Apart from the actual archive of the live meeting, what else you can do to preserve and share the outputs of your collaboration. We’ll post it in a couple of days time, so do please come back.

We’re hoping you will add your own ideas to these blog items too, so we can create of it something that is representative of the experience of a wide range of practitioners and helps us all to understand what works and what doesn’t.

We can’t go on meeting like this – Part 7 Interactive Meetings

Run your meeting mastering the available forms of interaction

“I’m ready for my close-up Mr De Mille” (Sunset Boulevard)


If you thought people could be distracted in a real meeting, then consider how much more scope there is for them to tune out when you’re working online. Events happening around them, constant interruptions, and the easy availability of alternative things to do on their computers often take the focus of attention away from the screen. With the participants largely invisible – even if each person is actively engaged, how are you to know? Without regular interactivity, you are flying blind, you are just hoping for the best. Interactivity proves that communication is taking place.

When planning interactions, imagine how you would interact within a face-to-face meeting.

Text chat

The chat facility typically operates alongside the virtual meeting, available for use at any time. Participants can use it to ask or answer questions or as a ‘back channel’ to pass public or private notes. Some facilitators may find this activity a little strange – after all, we would probably feel uncomfortable if people seated around a table passed messages to one other during a meeting. However, many participants find this channel of great use: they exchange contact details, links, thoughts and comments; they help to move the meeting along, without intervention by the facilitator.

Chat is a good option for questions requiring brief, open-ended responses. If you don’t want participants to ‘cheat’ by borrowing the opinions of the last person, ask participants to type in their comments but not press ‘send’ until told to.

Participants who have inhibitions about speaking up in a live meeting, may be more inclined to interact when text chat is available.

If you want to divide a meeting into sub-groups you might use virtual breakout rooms. Private one-to-one text chat may be an easier alternative if you choose to work in pairs.

Time constraints

A virtual (online) meeting room makes it easy to set timers and to specify the outputs you require of groups or individuals when they are producing something in text chat. In a physical space you might write the task in hand on a flipchart. In a virtual space, it is simple to type instructions into text chat or on to a slide or blank whiteboard.

Give participants time to review each other’s contributions.

You can normally save chat discussions so people can use them after the meeting has ended.

Ticks and crosses

Most systems provide a way for facilitators to obtain simple yes/no responses from participants, totalling up the responses automatically. Facilitators can use this mechanism to obtain confirmations (‘Can you hear me clearly?’, ‘Shall I move on?’) or to conduct simple polls (‘Have you used this system before?’, ‘Do you agree with this?’) Some more sophisticated systems let you set up multiple choice or multiple option questons to gather information or opinions in the same way.

Voice interaction

Participant audio is the best option for longer, open-ended responses (or questions) that would require too much typing to express in chat.

For participants to respond by voice, they must have microphones as well as headphones or speakers. This is not a costly problem to solve, because integrated headsets can be obtained for as little as £10. The advantages of using voice are obvious: the communication is more natural and spontaneous, and there is no need for typing. However, some moderation is required to avoid everyone speaking at once. Most systems use a ‘hands-up’ facility, which allows participants to signify that they want to speak. It is then up to the facilitator to ‘turn the mic on’ or otherwise allow the participant to speak.


In the context of web conferencing, a whiteboard is a blank screen or a prepared slide, on to which participants can draw or type. Whatever is placed on the whiteboard can be seen by all participants. You can use whiteboards in a wide variety of ways:

  • for ice-breaking activities (‘Indicate on this map where you are located’);
  • for capturing expectations at the beginning of a session and then revisiting them at the end for listing participants’ ideas, flip chart-style (‘Where should we hold our sales convention this year?’);
  • for assessing how things are going (‘Draw a picture showing how you’re feeling about this topic’);
  • for structured questions (‘What are you hoping to gain from this meeting?’);
  • as a place where participants can paste screen shots from an application on their computer; these could include screen grabs of documents, spreadsheets and web pages.

To avoid everyone typing or drawing on top of each other, the facilitator can prepare a slide with sections allocated to each of the participants.

Instead of having participants type their responses, consider encouraging them to draw pictures instead.

Whiteboards can often be archived for use after the session. If the system won’t allow this, just make your own screen grab.

Consider asking experienced participants to take turns in annotating the whiteboard.

Polling and quizzing

Polls allow you to ask multiple-choice questions, to profile participants or to survey opinion. They are usually set up in advance, although most systems will allow you to modify or add new questions on the fly. An advantage of online polling is that you can obtain totalled-up responses instantly, allowing you to act immediately on the information.

Quizzes and surveys employed during a live session should be brief and advance the cause of the objectives for the meeting. Otherwise they are better deployed separately, either before or after the session.

Breakout rooms

Some systems provide you with the facility to allocate participants to groups, have them then undertake activities in those groups, monitor what is happening in each room, and then bring them back for a review in plenary. This process mirrors syndicate room activity in a physical conference suite and can be used for much the same purposes, for example:

  • For strategic planning or obstacle elimination.
  • Different groups can work with different content or using different tools (for example one might be doing SWOT analysis while another does Force Field Analysis).
  • If there are varying levels of seniority or functional expertise in a meeting, the session can be divided and different facilitators can moderate separate breakout rooms.
  • Participants can discuss different scenarios, using their own whiteboard to take notes.
  • You can conduct a number of action learning sets in parallel.

With a smaller group, say two to five participants, audio can be used more freely than in plenary. If you want, a spokesperson from each group can report to the larger group once everyone has moved back into the main room.

You may need to use a producer or co-facilitator to assist with the management. However responsibilities are divided, it is important for one of the facilitators to drop in regularly to provide guidance. It may pay to set up a template on the whiteboard in advance, to help direct the group.

Until they become practised, participants at virtual meetings tend not to follow instructions very well. When put into a virtual breakout room, often they will wait for the meeting leader to show up to reissue instructions or manage the tools for them. For participants who are “becalmed” there is usually a device for sending a call to the meeting host who receives a text message asking for help.

There is some evidence that small (3-5 participants), heterogeneous groups better.

When to interact

Most experts agree that participants will lose concentration in a virtual meeting unless they are required to interact in some way every three to five minutes. It goes without saying that interactivity should not be used for its own sake. Each interaction should be meaningful and productive, and this requires planning and preparation.

Try to involve the whole group in the interaction. Serial participation (one person interacting after another) is rarely the best option as it takes too long. It is better to design activities that can be undertaken in small groups or concurrently, using breakout rooms, chat or the whiteboard.

Application sharing

All web conferencing systems allow participants to share an application on their own desktop. They can also pass control of it to someone else.

This feature has a number of important uses:

  • You can view a document and edit the content dynamically.
  • You could create a rich picture, a mind map or a project plan then pass control from person to person to complete the task. Or you could set up individual breakout rooms in which participants can work on items on their own desktops, and present to or get help from the meeting leader where appropriate.
  • You can use application sharing as the basis for mentally rehearsing a change that involves involve technology, e.g. the embedding of modifications or introduction of a new IT system.
  • Presentations can be shared without being uploaded in advance into the web conferencing system’s own format. This ensures all the functionality of the original presentation is maintained.

The downside of application sharing is that it demands a fast broadband connection if it is not to appear jerky and disjointed.

Open the application before you need to use it. Have it open, logged in, and ready in another window.

Find out how much space participants will have on their screens to view applications on then size your window accordingly. Otherwise participants will have to scroll to see the whole application window.

Make sure you close all other applications, especially IM and email – you don’t want embarrassing pop-ups to appear in your meeting.

Web tours

Some systems also allow the facilitator to lead participants in exploring a particular web site, whether on the internet or an organisation’s intranet. This is useful in that it allows online content to be employed without it being uploaded into the system in the advance. This content could include animations and video, which are not normally available within uploaded slides. It could also include games, quizzes, questionnaires and other activities which participants can then undertake individually.

What next?

Part eight of this ten-part series is about managing group dynamics online, in order to keep everyone involved and on-track. We’ll post it in a couple of days time, so do please come back.

We’re hoping you will add your own ideas to these blog items too, so we can create of it something that is representative of the experience of a wide range of practitioners and helps us all to understand what works and what doesn’t.

We can’t go on meeting like this – Part 6 Design Your Meeting

Design your meeting, using the right combination of media

Establishing goals

The purpose of a meeting can be viewed on two different levels: the business outcomes that the meeting is designed to support and the modelling of corporate values about how people treat one another. If these are unclear, insincere or ill-remembered, then they need to be refreshed before the online meeting is designed. If you neglect to do this then you have no way of knowing whether an online meeting is an appropriate solution, what should be covered and what methods of interaction and recording should be used.

You can increase engagement and satisfaction by ensuring that the meeting is not just a passing of information that could be handed over better by asynchronous means such as email, memo or press release.

Your role as designer of the session is to select the most appropriate methods and media to meet the particular objectives. Often the best approach is to combine a live online meeting with those other asynchronous methods used before and after. It can be helpful to think of the meeting itself as a real-time event packaged with preparation and information sharing ahead of time and continued reflection and sharing afterwards.

Why does a meeting need designing?

Design is what you do to ensure that everything that should happen at a meeting, does happen. A meeting is an opportunity to let others know how we feel; our wants and needs, and what we are thinking. We are not all equally good at communicating those things, and most of us can improve our skills. We adapt our preferred styles of communication according to who we are meeting and what we’d like to achieve, for example pleading will need a different approach to interrogating, persuading, cajoling, disciplining etc. When we meet face-to-face there is always the possibility of misunderstanding. Fortunately a change of mood is easy to spot, and most of us have a good bag of tricks to help to put a relationship back on kilter. It may be more difficult to do this online because words, once spoken in public or written in black on white, are difficult ever to “unspeak”. That is why a clear agenda, a good structure and some clear “rules of engagement” are so useful. Active listening face-to-face is something you do with your eyes, your ears and through speech. Active listening online may need you to be even more sensitive to tone of voice and tolerant of cryptic and ambiguous instant text messages. As part of the design of a meeting, a leader must take account of the importance of these channels and make sure they are not restricted or abused.

What should a design include?

For an online meeting it may show not only the content, but also prompts or even an actual script that will tell the facilitator what to do and say to keep the meeting on track, make sure everyone participates, and to reach the goals that were set for it. Once you have found the most successful format for your online meetings, you can call upon a set of familiar tools and regular techniques that you know have worked to keep discussions on track, to allow everyone to contribute. The design will set the tone and culture for the meeting as democratic or controlling, competitive or collaborative etc. It can ensure a meeting is in harmony with the culture of the organisation.

Do you design the process as well as the content?

The agenda for a meeting does not usually explain how the meeting is to be run. Most commonly it shows the topics to be included, how much time is allocated to each and who will lead it. In the design of an online meeting you may also show how opinions will be shared and decisions will be made using the various markup and sharing tools that an online meeting includes.

It is normal to assign different roles to ensure an online meeting is successful. The facilitator will manage the content; the host will control the interactions; you may have a recorder to type notes as others are speaking and to be responsible for starting and saving the recording if it has been agreed to save and publish the meeting.

What are the key elements in planning a meeting?

There are many things to consider when planning a meeting, including the purpose, participants and announcement. It is a good idea to make sure your plan answers the basic question, “What do people need to bring away from the meeting?” In some cases this may be obvious, but in more complex situations the answer may invlolve collecting views of a number of different interested parties. Once the outcomes have been set, you can put together an agenda. It will normally include the issues to be aired, the methods of discussing each one, how much time allocated to it and the person who “owns” that item.

Structuring the session

Do not underestimate the need for introductions at the start of an online meeting.

For people who join early, and who are not practised with the online tool, provide a meaningful but none-too-challenging activity, for example a whiteboard activity, helping them to get used to the markup tools. Consider an ice-breaker e.g. a map that participants can markup with their location. Always display a welcome slide with the meeting title and objective, the start and finish times, and the leader’s name and photo.

Keep on hand a slide that shows a screen capture of the interface, with the important tools labelled. Present the ground rules, the outcomes and agenda. Put an activitiy in the design to stimulate the use of chat (the back channel) early in the proceedings so it becomes a background routine and non-invasive. Learn more about the backgrounds of participants through an interactive activity. Use lead-in questions or a poll to engage participants and establish the importance/relevance of the meeting topic to them.

Consider including a guest speaker or even a panel of experts.

Voice and live video

Non-verbal cues may be an important channel of communication at a conventional meeting. Do try to overcompensate for its ansence by turning an online meeting into a production number; it does not need to entertain and may not even need to inform. Nevertheless audio will be ever-present and must deliver the major part of your message. It is possible to communicate very successfully using sound as the principle medium, and without eye contact or visible non-verbal behaviour, as demonstrated by radio.

It is important to obtain the best possible audio quality, as this has an important effect on how participants perceive the quality of the meeting as a whole. Make sure you have a reliable broadband connection and use a good quality headset or mic.

Research shows that cognition is improved when a complex visual is explained by audio narration rather than by text. This is because the brain can easily pay attention to one auditory and one video channel, but struggles with two visual channels (the graphic and the text).

Images and text

Slides are not essential to every online meeting; after all, as we describe later on in this article, you also have the ability to share applications, tour web sites, carry out whiteboard activities and conduct polls – all of which can act as the primary visual focus. However, slides can be extremely useful both as visual aids and as signposts, as long as they are used properly, avoiding the risk of the dreaded ‘death by PowerPoint’.

Research shows that we can absorb and recall information better from words and pictures than from words alone, which is not surprising when you consider that the majority of our sensory input is visual. Pictures are powerful and they are memorable, but it does matter what pictures you use – different types of information require different types of visuals to convey meaning most clearly.

Consider some of the uses:

  • Photos of yourself and other speakers.
  • Diagrams to represent processes, principles, structures, layouts.
  • Photos to represent actual people, events, objects.
  • Photos/illustrations to represent abstract concepts.
  • Screen grabs to show software applications.
  • Charts to represent numeric data.


Audio is likely to be the primary verbal channel, so don’t confuse the participant with a second verbal channel in the form of text on the screen. The participant won’t know whether to listen or read; and because they can do the latter much faster than the former, they’ll probably tune out what you’re saying). Use text on slides sparingly, for example:

  • An agenda.
  • Titles, which signpost the current topic.
  • Anything the participant might want to make a note of, such as terms, URLs, names or quotes.
  • Labels for diagrams, photos or charts.
  • Lists – bulleted or numbered. Note that when you are presenting items in a list, it is not good practice to show those items that you have yet to cover – reveal these in subsequent slides. And don’t be tempted to use your bullets as a script – as an online presenter, if you need a script you can have this in front of you in paper format, or in a separate window.

If you really do need to present a lot of text, distribute this as a separate document, or provide a link to materials to be read before or after the session.

Be careful when re-using slides which you normally use in a live presentation. Your slides are likely to be displayed in a smaller window and may degrade in quality when they are converted to the system’s own format. The best solution is to keep them simple and bold. You should also be prepared for the possibility that your transitions and animations will not be carried over. That means any builds will have to be displayed as a sequence across a number of cloned slides.

What next?

Part seven of this ten-part series is about making your meeting interactive, using the various devices and tools that are common to most web-conferencing software. We’ll talk about how to take advantage of these so that your meetings satisfy those who take part by allowing everyone to reach the planned outcomes. We’ll post it in a couple of days time, so do please come back.

We’re hoping you will add your own ideas to these blog items too, so we can create of it something that is representative of the experience of a wide range of practitioners and helps us all to understand what works and what doesn’t.

We can’t go on meeting like this – Part 5 Manage the Change

Manage the change – manage expectations – upskill users

For those who have no experience of them, online meetings may be surrounded by an air of mystique that is fuelled by quite strongly prejudicial views. Some of that negativity comes from fear of change, some comes from a poor previous experience and some comes from simply not knowing what an online meeting is like.

One obvious solution is to explain what synchronous communication is. It requires all participants to be available at the same time. It’s live, it’s real-time. Its opposite is asynchronous communication, which frees up participants from the need to be available at the same time. It’s self-paced. Face-to-face communication is synchronous, as is the telephone, chat rooms, video conferencing, instant messaging and web conferencing. On the other hand, all forms of recorded media are asynchronous, including books, CDs and podcasts. But asynchronous communication can also be two-way, as with letters, email, discussion forums, blogs, wikis, etc. Self-paced e-learning is asyncrhonous. Virtual classrooms are synchronous.

To be ‘online’ implies a state of connectivity, typically through a device such as a computer that is connected to the Internet. Face-to-face communication is clearly not online. Most traditional media, including print publications, tapes, CDs, radio and TV can be regarded as offline media.

Being between a rock and a hard place

When you ask people to meet for learning or to transfer information online for the first time, you are asking them to adopt a way of working that they may regard as innovative and unproven. You may meet boundless enthusiasm, but you are almost bound to meet some resistance. Some will see the two words “meet” and “online” as a contradiction in terms.

When they are managing the introduction of new things, many people use a well-known model that is described in a book by Geoffrey  Moore. It is especially relevant to people in sales and marketing. He speaks of “crossing the chasm” between the first 2.5% to take up a new idea or technology, he calls them “innovators”, and the next group – the 13.5% whom he calls “early adopters”.

Technology Adoption Lifecycle

Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore.  Harper Business; Rev. 1999 ISBN-10: 0066620023

Crossing your own particular chasm

You are likely to run into a number of different barriers before you can say the project to introduce online meetings has crossed the chasm.

Managerial Commitment

You may struggle to win support for online meetings without the involvement of senior line management. They are likely to be interested in setting targets, and so it is useful, if you are the person who is driving the change, to provide reports to managers, hold briefings and make sure you keep you commit them to gving you feedback.

Technical Commitment

You’ll need to “do your sums”. Estimate the benefits in comparison with conventional meetings and other potential investments in business improvement. Find the most influential sponsor you can. You may need to sell online meeting as a leading edge project, or play it down according to the culture of your organisation. It is essential to create the conditions where IT support is behind what you are trying to do.

User Commitment

You must provide satisfaction and you may even have to provide rewards (tangible and intangible) to encourage people to take part. You’ll need to ensure the meetings tools are accessible and easily available to all when they need them. People must have the time, budget and tools to reach mastery quickly. Look for local support and champions (advocates). It may sound like a paradox, but try to maintain personal contact with them face-to-face and not just online.

Who Attracted by Put off by Tactics TimeLine
Top Managers Cost saving
Forward thinking
Ownership of content
Lack of early action
Make them part of the project Throughout
Co-support functions Online meetings will help us all Online meetings compete for resources or attention   Any time through the project
Other projects This project will help us The project competes for resources or attention Seek linkages and synergy Any time through the project
Senior Line Management This meets a business need It takes time to do Meetings
Three months prior to launch
First Line Management I may not need to pass on briefings to my people second hand It takes time to do
I have to manage it
Briefings from senior management
Help Desk
One month prior to launch
People who attend meetings I can meet anyone, whenever and wherever I want Lack of social interaction
Techno fear
Ad campaign
Personal tution
Two weeks prior to launch
Trainers I am involved I am not involved
Will online meetings put me out of a job?
Integrate into the project From the start

Adoption Strategies

To help to recognise the stages that people may be passing through towards trust and support for online meetings, we have adapted a model of change that appeared way back in 1986 in a magazine article by American academic, Diane Dormant. The ABCD’s of managing change. In M. Smith (ed.), Introduction to performance technology. Washington, DC.: National Society for Performance and Instruction.

Stage 1 Ignorance:

At first people don’t know what they don’t know. They are indifferent to the use of online meetings because they have no knowledge of them. You need to take a leaf from the book of the advertising professional. Do not go too deeply into logical argument or persuasion. Expose people to intriguing messages, slogans and eye-catching statistics. Be brief, be lively and positive. Try viral marketing using the full range of social media (Twitter, Facebook, and so on). Publish good news stories and act as Champion to pass on messages about new methods of meeting that will resonate with those who hear them.

Stage 2 Anxiety:

Raising awareness won’t stop people from fretting over how meeting online will affect them personally. Will they have difficulty and spend time dealing with problems? Will the system crash? Will they look foolish in front of their colleagues or managers? Will they come away from meetings with all boxes ticked? Will they miss important information if the participants are not physically present? Now you need to take on the personality of a counsellor, reassuring participants with honest and authentic facts. Respond with sympathy, or pre-empt real fears by revisiting all the positive benefits of meeting online. If you are introducing online meetings as an enterprise-wide change, then you might think of giving vent to concerns through focus groups, road shows or FAQs on a website where you can gather questions, concerns and misapprehensions and then deal with them at future stages in this model for change.

Stage 3 Curiosity:

As long as you continue to answer questions in a cool, calm and open manner, people will move on from “how does this affect me?” to “go on then; show me”. This is an important shift from self-protection to accepting that there is going to be a change in how they do meetings. As Champion you must now explain the process, features and benefits of online meeting in some detail. You might put together some case material such as video talking heads or a panel of witnesses – trusted colleagues who have piloted the change. As soon as it’s available you should use qualitative data about the results of meeting online. Demonstrate how webinars (for example) can reduce time spent in meetings while increasing the amount of useful information that a participant can process, make meetings more dynamic and focused, and so on. Show it as more inclusive, closer to individual needs, more flexible, accessible and effective and participants will soon be ready to try it out for themselves.

Stage 4 Readiness:

Once they are ready to take part, people may still be unsure about how colleagues or managers will react to what they are doing. Now you become trainer/coach, teaching people how to take part, deal with resistance and derive maximum benefit from meeting online. As they learn from one another, participants will themselves become advocates and fend off the “nay sayers”. Look out for positive shifts in attitude due to emerging and measurable results, and make capital of them.

Stage 5 Acceptance:

Ready, willing and able to use new methods of meeting, participants now begin to enjoy personal benefits. You may be hearing technical or procedural questions, or the exchange of suggestions for improvement. Now your role is implementer, as people relax, introducing more challenging or more ambitious activities that use the new methodology.

A continuous performance improvement approach permeates the project. Listen for and act upon ideas for modifying materials and procedures. Ensure any defects are fixed and watch the project gets ever closer to the personalities and preferences of users.

Stage 6 Fatigue:

As people become regular and practised users, they may experience a sense of boredom or dissatisfaction. The sense of novelty and innovation has faded and they want greater challenge, more variety or more ambitious forms of interaction. Now you pass into the ultimate role of maintenance. Keep manuals, reusable items such as welcome slides, action plans and agendas, as well as the software, hardware and success stories fresh and up to date, otherwise disillusionment will set in. Encourage participants to express their own suggestions and assurn them that they will be shared and given consideration.

Above all, each link must be reinforced between the newly-adopted methods of meeting and the goals of the organisation. No-one should stop striving for other, even more effective and innovative ways of reaching those goals.

Cultural differences

In 2004 a study of executives from 303 companies concluded that the best meetings involve lots of sharing of documents and visual information. The greatest productivity comes not from presenting and reviewing data, but from having everyone on the same page working towards a common goal.

Online meeting tools do this very well. The British seem to take to it better than their French and German counterparts. UK business managers more than others said they thought viewing documents together was the greatest benefit in driving productivity.

French and German managers rated being able to see facial expression. Even with video it is difficult to observe body language and facial expression. However with a little knowledge, skill and practice you can use various features and techniques in a virtual meeting in order to pick up other cues to test mood and motives.

We are not recommending that you go online to socialise or meet new people for the first time. However our opening premise was that online meetings might save you from ruin at times when it is not possible to meet in the conventional way. In those circumstances, there are many useful tricks and techniques you can apply for building rapport and a team-working spirit.

What next?

Part six of this ten-part series is about designing your meeting, using the right combination of media. We’ll talk about the use of text and imagery and how to achieve a good balance and engage people without over-engineering the design. We’ll post it in a couple of days time, so do please come back.

We’re hoping you will add your own ideas to these blog items too, so we can create of it something that is representative of the experience of a wide range of practitioners and helps us all to understand what works and what doesn’t.