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15 January 2001

Hybrid International Meetings for Participants on the Move

From Face-to-Face to Virtual Interaction

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A version of this document appeared in the Congrex Annual Review (2000)


Extremes

There is widespread familiarity with what might be termed "conventional international meetings", namely those in which the emphasis is on face-to-face interaction. These have long been supplemented by use of well-known communications devices for the speakers - such as microphones, and projectors. The only communications technology used by participants may then be earphones for interpretation.

At the other extreme, and beyond the focus of the conventional meetings industry, there has been an explosion of "virtual international meetings" over the past decade. These involve no face-to-face interaction. Such meetings tend to be an extension of bulletin boards, listservers and usegroups, dating back to the 1970s. The interactions are increasingly facilitated by sophisticated software packages.

It is now increasingly the case that participants at conventional face-to-face meetings will initiate communications before the event electronically, and will follow-up the event by further electronic communications. Indeed many meetings now depend on electronic communications for their organization. Similarly, participants in virtual meetings may choose to gather for face-to-face encounters at some stage - although this tends to take the form of one-on-one encounters rather than gatherings as groups of any significant number.

Future hybrid gatherings

Some degree of "hybridization" has emerged. Many conference centres now have electronic communication facilities for use by participants - just as they had telephone facilities before that. Message monitors are increasingly available to inform participants in lobbies of changes of venue, for example. Participants with laptops may even be able to use internet access points in public areas. A number of conferences make significant use of satellite conferencing facilities to ensure participation of distinguished speakers. This may even extend to panel sessions in video-conferencing mode.

For some, this degree of hybridization has already gone even further. In scientific meetings it is quite usual to present the total programme on the internet as it develops - both before the event and through "work stations" at the actual venue. This allows participants to plan their time on-site effectively. These work stations may either be dispersed at various points of the venue (computer and printer) or as an "electronic centre" free of charge. Often, the internet based programme information is "coupled" with an internal messaging service allowing changes to be disseminated in a more effective way. These "centra" also serve as a meeting point for delegates in order to net-work

New technologies are now forcing the pace of hybridization. One of, the most evident (but perhaps not generally thought about) is the exploding use of the portable telephone - whether as a phone or for simple messaging. New variants now available are dedicated to the sending of longer messages by phone and may therefore soon become standard equipemùent for every participant (perhaps issued on loan like earphones). These allow the participant in a conference to communicate both with other participants at the same event as well as with others absent from the event. This can have several consequences:

The pattern is evident for many who make use of "empty time" -- like making an important call while waiting at a red traffic light etc. For the organizer and the participant a key question is whether such activity furthers the purpose of the meeting -- or undermines and devalues such participation. In the first case this will encourage attendance at such events in the future, but in the second it will lead to decisions not to participate in such events in future. It will become very important for organizers to establish the credibility and advantages of the communication opportunity they offer - not just in hardware terms but in terms of how the communication dynamics work to advance the agendas of all those present. This will probably lead to the emergence of a new type of conference skill - people who enable serendipitous communication using whatever technology is appropriate. Organizers will have to take care that they themselves do not develop a reputation for seeking to "lock in" participants - as some manufacturers of hardware and software have been known to do with purchasers of their products.

It will be young people using internet-enabled (eg WAP) devices that will rapidly explore an even wider range of possibilities. The recognized effects of such devices on student interactions is already an indictor. As their style starts to permeate meeting organization, they may dramatically change conference dynamics. At first this will only be evident amongst the younger people acting independently at conferences, but progressively their style may take over as its comparative advantages become apparent.

The traditional "form" or structure of a face-to-face meeting must take these possibilities into account for the future. The patience of the attendees might no longer be as evident or as polite as in the past - maybe there will emerge a form of "participant rage" analogous to "passenger rage" in public transportation. Signs of this (especially amongst university students of today) have been noted. Tomorrow's generation have been brought up in a communication environment and will expect much value for money and time -- if they attend a face to face meeting.

More intriguing will be the way in which participants will be deliberately integrated into a hybrid event, whether they are present or absent, using laptop and other technologies. This will radically shift the nature of meeting organization, whether in terms of the degree of pre-planning of "room allocation" or that of "thematic organization". It is questionable whether present rigidities will be considered acceptable when participants have a need for spontaneous break-out and break-away sessions in response to collective creativity and emerging challenges.

Of course, the behaviour and expectations of tomorrow's delegates could very well go another way if the conference organisers take emerging expectations seriously. Conferences could be planned allowing for a higher degree of "break-out" spontaneity from the start etc:

The shift towards hybrid meetings will be accelerated by increasing competition for peoples time, increasing travel hassle, and some strong indications of future constraints on finite fuel resources and the consequent implications for projected future rises in travel costs - despite widespread expectations of a doubling of travellers world wide up to 2010.

Challenges

Dependence on electronic communications will pose some severe challenges (as well as opportunities for those who seek to exploit them):


References

Anthony Judge:

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