Technical Facilitation of Meeting Dynamics and Participant Inter-action
from conference organization for well-behaved participants
to conference organization for the satisfaction of participants
- / -
Paper presented to 6th International Congress on Congress Organization (Working
Session 2: Technical Equipment) of the Union of International Associations
1-4 December 1975). In: New Techniques in Congress Organization: proceedings
of the 6th International Congress on Congress Organization.
1977, pp. 68-76. Also in: International Associations
28, 1, 1976, pp. 34-37
and 28, 2, pp. 88-93.
Checklist of participant communication requirements
Some indicators that current conference organization is inadequate
Index of inter-participant communication effectiveness
Implication of augmented meeting dynamics for conference organization
Conference dynamics summarized
Possibilities for technical support of improved meeting dynamics
Annex 1: Letter from a group of disenchanted conference participants
significant number of conferences, whether national or international,
may be judged a failure or a waste of resources despite the fact that
(1) all conventional technical and administrative facilities and services
are used competently with the guidance of experienced personnel;
[2) the programme of the conference is well-conceived and conforms to the
interests and priorities of the different groups of participants;
(3) the meeting sessions and the social sessions are well-organized and
paper is concerned with the types of meeting which risk being judged
a failure under such circumstances.
frequent source of participant frustration within a well-organized
meeting is the lack of adequate contact between participants in terms of
their special interests (namely other
than purely social contact).
Little attention has been devoted to the technical support of contact
formation and the facilitation of the associated meeting dynamics, and
(1) facilitating contact between participants within the conference as
a whole who do not realize that they have commitments or professional
interests in common;
(2) increasing the quantity and the quality of communication between Individual
participants and/or with the chairman or speaker during a particular meeting
is particularly serious when the objective of the conference is
primarily the clarification of issues and the formation of consensus
rather than the reporting of substantive information or the satisfaction
of protocol requirements.
In the following section, the types of meetings to which these remarks refer
are clarified. An attempt is than made to develop a checklist of the communication
requirements of participants as a guide to assessing the attention
given to these matters in conventional meetings.
It is useful to distinguish between four basic types of meeting which are
best suited to different purposes. The four types are of course extreme cases
which in reality blend into one another. The relationships between the extremes
can however be usefully illustrated by the accompanying diagram (see Diagram
src="images/75kyoto_files/image002.jpg" alt="Organizer vs. Participant control" width=50%>
1. Hierarchical meetings
a. Protocol and policy: These tend to involve a speech by an eminent
person which participants must listen to either as a gesture of respect, or
for reasons of protocol, or as a matter of good public relations, or because
it may outline new policies for the first time.
b. Exhortative: These tend to involve a speech by a respected person
exhorting participants to some new effort, namely a speech by a skilled orator
conceived as a means of arousing enthusiasm or of changing beliefs in support
of some new action.
c. Information: These tend to involve a speech by some technically
competent person in which new facts are presented, or the results of programmes,
or a detailed outline of new programmes.
d. Administration: These tend to involve the presentation of annual
or financial reports, election of officers, etc.
Advantages: These include the absence of restriction on the number
of participants: the ability for those organizing the meeting to inform large
numbers of some current situation; and the ability of participants to hear
the views of individuals who would otherwise be inaccessible to them.
Disadvantages: These include the restriction on participant expression;
the suppression of viewpoints not in accord with those of the organizers of
the meeting, or at least not envisaged within the programme framework: and
the channelling of participant expression via the podium rather than directly
2. Small group meetings
a. Workshop: These tend to concentrate on the exchange of
experiences, discussion of proposals, and clarification of issues.
b. Committee: These tend to concentrate on
the elaboration of specific proposals, drafting of reports, etc.
Advantages: These include the ability to focus in detail and at great
length on complex matters; the facilitation of expression of minority viewpoints;
and the ability of all present to participate fully in discussion.
Disadvantages: These include the difficulty of informing any plenary
session of the substance of the discussions, of taking into account the viewpoints
of parallel group meetings on related topics, and of integrating the conclusions
into the larger perspective of the plenary body.
3. Amorphous meetings
a. Exhibitions: These involve the free movement of participants
and their exposure to a wide variety of information on exhibit stands, according
to their special interests.
b. Social occasions: These include unstructured recaptions and
parties involving much self-selected interaction between participants.
c. Open-meetings: These are undirected, or minimally
directed, large meetings, with much movement and interaction between participants.
There is frequently relatively free access to the public-address system.
Advantages: These include considerable opportunity for participants
to make contact with one another on the basis of their special interests and
to choose the manner in which those interests should be developed [whether
by holding a small meeting immediately, or planning some collaborative enterprise
for some later date).
Disadvantages: These include a considerable restriction on general
coordination and consensus formation verging in some cases on a general state
4. Network meetings
This is an emergent form of meeting organization characterized by the following:
a. Flexibility: Rapid conversion, in the light of emerging consensus
during the course of the meeting, to and from the other forms of meeting organization.
b. Emergent issues: Identification of emergent issues and formation
of subgroups to clarify them rapidly so as to maintain the momentum of the
c. Alternative sessions: Organization of alternative sessions not
originally envisaged in the programme or room allocation, where significant
numbers of participants find that they have more in common on subjects not
scheduled in the pre-established meeting programme.
Advantages: These include a much greater response to the needs of
participants present rather than the imposition upon them of a programme
which may not reflect their pre-occupations or the areas in which they consider
interaction to be both possible and useful.
include a considerable strain on the ability
of the conference organizers to maintain the coherence of the meeting
without having it endangered by emerging issues and desires for
first three types of meeting have been well-explored. The dynamics
of such meetings and the technical problems of organizing them are well-
known. Considerable expertise and
technical equipment is available to
ensure that such meetings function efficiently and to the satisfaction
of participants content with the set-pieces of the pre-established
meetings require that participants function in a predictable,
well-behaved manner within the framework provided and that their satis-
faction with the meeting should primarily be derived from the speakers,
panelists and moderators of the sessions established in the printed
programme by the organizers. The focus
of such meetings is therefore
on the pre-determined meeting session framework. Considerable problems
arise if there is any question of modifying the programme and the room
allocation in the light of emerging requirementsduring the course of the
conference. Because all significant
interaction is supposed to take place
within the planned sessions, mediated by the speaker and chairman, no
attention is given to the problems of the interaction between participants
independently of such sessions, other than during the formal social events.
Contact between participants is facilitated solely by receptions, parties
and banquets. No serious attempt is
therefore made to establish contact
between participants on the basis of their professional interests or
commitments. Such contacts may of
course occur as a result of chance
Introductions during social occasions.
question is: Should participants travel
long distances, in many cases
thousands of miles at great cost, in the hopes that by chance they may
establish contact with just those people having the same, or complementary,
professional interests and commitments?
Should they be expected to accept
features of the programme which do not correspond to the interests of a
significant number of participants present, thus wasting their time and the
opportunity for the more beneficial interaction which may well have been
the factor originally motivating them to attend the conference in the first
To clarify these matters it is useful to look at a checklist of participant
communication desires. It should be noted that this is quits distinct from
a code of conduct for meeting participants, namely how they should behave
in order that the meeting should function according to the desires of the
organizers.(+) In this case, it is rather how the meeting should be organized
in order that the participant should be satisfied. The distinction is between
the responsibilities of the participant permitted to participate in the conference
and the rights of the participant having paid to be there.
Checklist of participant communication requirements
A participant nay well be prepared to pay whatever reasonable cost is necessary
in order to have good communication guaranteed by technical support and thus
ensure significant benefit from his investment in the (usually considerable)
cost of participation in meetings. The partici- pant may be assumed to want
the following communication problems to be resolved for him during an ideal
conference. The following list does not take into account the conventional
problems of sound amplification, interpretation, and audi-visual assistance.
1. Communication by a participant within a particular session
a. Ability of a participant to inform (a) the speaker, and/or (b) the
chairman, and/or (c) all participants, and/or (d) a selected group of participants
of points such as:
* his agreement or disagreement with the speaker
* his agreement or disagreement with a proposal under discussion
* his desire to move onto the next agenda item
* his desire for clarification of the point being made
* his desire for the speaker to make his point more rapidly
* his desire to adjourn the session
* his desire to break into small group discussion sessions.
b. Ability of a participant to participate in electronically-assisted weighted
voting on issues in order to arrive at consensus without polarization and
oversimplification of the issues under discussion.
c. Ability to receive an extensive summary of a session into which he has
come late, or a brief summary of the past 5-10 minutes of the session if he
has been otherwise temporarily occupied.
d. Ability to convey a message to any other participant he can identify
during the course of a meeting session (e.g. to the last speaker from the
floor to several speakers from the floor with whom he is in agreement).
e. Ability to exchange messages with one or more known people during a
session to determine a common course of action e.g. on leaving for a discussion
over coffee, or discussion on how to vote).
2. Communication by a participant within the conference
2.1 With the organizers
a. Ability to convey messages to (and receive messages from) the administrative
officer responsible for revising travel, hotel and other such arrangements.
b. Ability to receive up-to-the-minute information on
* the conference programme amendments
* the reallocation of rooms for meeting sessions
* any rescheduling of his own time in the light of the previous points,
particularly when he has commitments in particular sessions.
2.2 With other participants in general
a. Provision of a (regular updated) list of names of people present at
the conference with some indication of how they may best be contacted.
b. Provision of a (regular updated) list of names of people present at
the conference with interests and commitments similar to those he has indicated
as his own.
c. Ability to inform all (interested) participants of:
* a proposal for a new issue for discussion or action
* a proposal for the organization of a new working group
* the announcement of a briefing session or audio-visual event
* a proposal for a new resolution
* names proposed for election and to receive the names of the persons
d. Ability to leave messages for (and receive messages from) people he
is not able to contact directly with the minimum of delay before the messages
e. Ability to have a series of contact meetings (two or more persons) scheduled
and re-scheduled according to the changing availability of his prospective
contacts, the respective priorities he attaches to them, and his and their
respective fixed commitments.
f. Ability to specify which portions of his time are
* definitely committed to particular sessions
* definitely committed to his own private schedule
* definitely committed to particular contact meetings, however the other
person may want them re-scheduled.
* currently available for automatic scheduling and re-scheduling of proposed
g. Ability to re-specify his interests and communication preferences as
new issues emerge during the conference or as more desirable communication
possibilities become evident.
h. Ability to acquire a mailing list of participants having certain types
of interest in order that he may send to them (1) during the conference, or
(2) after the conference, a copy of some text/report/brochure/meating invitation,
i. Ability to indicate the specific areas of activity in which he has engaged
in the past, possibly with an indication of the resulting reports (or articles],
so that other participants can leave messages indicating that they would like
to be sent copies (or receive further details) after the conference.
2.3 With much-solicited key persons (in the case of
a non-key person)
Ability to indicate to a selected eminent person his particular interest
and reason for a private discussion, given that such persons are usually faced
with the need to reduce the number of people with whom they interact on such
2.4 With non-Key persons (in the case of another key person)
The following measures are required, particularly by popular or eminent persons,
to prevent exposure to a flood of communication which they may not be able,
or wish, to handle. (They are specially required to reduce communication from
persistent, or even eccentric, participants.)
a. Ability to specify
* from what categories of participant he does (or does not) want to receive
* from which specific participants he definitely does (or does not) want
to receive communications
b. Ability to specify
* to which categories of participant he may be available for contact,
if there is similarity or complementarity of interest.
* in what sort of context he is prepared to make contact (private meeting,
coffee sessions, interaction with a group, talk to a small meeting, or prepared
* what maximum period he is prepared to allocate to such a contact
* what he is prepared to do in any session specifically arranged for
c. Ability to exchange messages with (possibly unknown) participants
to ensure, if necessary, that they define precisely the purpose of any proposed
d. Ability to specify
* which people should be able to leave priority messages for his attention
* which people should only be able to leave non-priority messages for
e. Ability to specify which people should be informed, but not consulted,
about his re-scheduling of his contacts with them.
f. Ability, in the case of a speaker, to receive messages containing the
names and addresses of participants who request a copy of the text of the
speech, when available.
g. Ability not to have his name listed in the general lists of participants
and their interests as distributed to certain categories of participants,
but only a contact number, in order that he can assess the quality of the
proposed contact before responding.
2.5 With key persons (in the case of another key person)
The following measures are required in order to facilitate communications
between key persons present at a conference.
a. Ability to specify which people should be able to contact him immediately
and directly, without the necessity of leaving messages, or by leaving priority
b. Ability to specify
* which (even more eminent) people have the right to re-schedule their
planned contacts with him, without consultation,
* which people he must consult before re-scheduling his contacts with
3. Communication by a participant with the outside world
a. Ability to receive messages from his home office and send messages
to his home office.
b. Ability to communicate (i.e. leave and receive messages) with other
individuals unable to attend the conference physically because of commitments
elsewhere, such that for many purposes they may be considered to be present
at the conference.
Some indicators that current conference organization
The following phenomena may be observed in an efficiently run conventional
During a session some participants wish to question the speaker but cannot
because of time limitations. The selection of those that do speak is arbitrary
even when based on a process of selecting and combining written questions
collected by hostesses.
- After a session a group of participants crowds around the speaker(s). Not
all can ask questions and not necessarily those with the best questions.
The speaker cannot make adequate contact and frequently, in other sessions,
cannot even speak to his colleagues from other parts of the world.
- Where the organizers permit and facilitate the use of a message notice
board, it is covered in a multitude of messages of great interest but which
do not necessarily reach the (busy) persons to whom they are addressed.
- During meeting sessions, a discontented crowd may form around the coffee
- According to a Unesco study, it is only the novice conference goers who
attend the meeting sessions as laid down in the programme. More experienced
participants select sessions and parts of sessions and spend the remainder
of their time in the hallways talking to the eminent people seated at strategic
spots to receive them. However the most eminent people, according to the
Unesco study, are to be found outside the conference centre in a bar arranging
the next conference, or other conferences with which they are associated.
- After a session, if the speaker has copies of his paper available, there
is a scramble to obtain one. If not, participants must wait patiently to
give their names and addresses to the speaker to receive a copy by mail.
- The distribution of documents by participants (whether or not they are
speakers), is usually a very haphazard and disorganized process dependent
upon the whim of the participants with something to distribute.
Index of inter-participant communication effectiveness
Such an index does not exist. Opinion surveys of participants during and
after the meeting might however establish the approximate number of new and
useful contacts made per participant. The purpose of such an index would
be to enlighten organizers as to the amount of time participants perceive
as usefully spent as against time spent conforming to communication requirements
perceived as of relatively little use. A key question to a participant might
be: how many of the new contacts made after the first day of the conference
could have beneficially been made on the first day? And: how many contacts
were made too late to be beneficially explored on that occasion?
Implication of augmented meeting dynamics for conference
Necessity for organizers to be able to re-schedule, during the course
of the conference, on the basis of information received at that time:
- the allocation of pre-planned sessions to particular rooms,
according to the number of persons who indicate they will attend.
[This might include the cancellation of some sessions to give place
- the allocation of rooms to sessions proposed at the last minute on
the basis of interests that have emerged during the course of a oarticular
- the allocation of audio-visual equipment and simultaneous interpretation
facilities to meeting rooms according to revised requirements.
Necessity for organizers to be able to exert the optimum degree of control
over the flew of communications in order to maximize inter- participant
contact and formulation of new activity without completely disrupting
the conference or exceeding the possibilities of the available facilities.
- Necessity for organizers to be able to shift the balance of communication
- an essentially hierarchical mode
- a small group session mode
- an amorphous meeting mode.
In order to achieve the advantages of the network mods whenever possible.
Clearly whenever the meeting is moving towards sterility, increased participant
inter-action should be facilitated, but whenever this increases beyond the
ability of the conference to contain it, then the hierarchical mode should
be used to a greater extent.
Necessity for organizers to be able to invoice participants according
to their precise use of the conference dynamic facilities (e.g. on a cost
per communication or per contact basis), or to identify which forms of such
communications should be subsidized to facilitate certain types of communication
essential to the healthy dynamics of the conference (e.g. on a low or zero
cost per communication basis).
Clearly organizers are faced with the problem of handling flexible evolving
conference programmes rather than the traditional ore-determined conference
programme. These problems have not yet been explored to any degree.
Conference dynamics summarized
A conference is a dynamic communication environment. It is a concentration
and intensification of the pattern of ongoing interaction between participants
prior to and following any particular conference. Both the organizers and participants
may well meet together frequently in other conference settings on related topics.
The particular communication pattern which is enhanced in a given conference
by the formal meeting structure selected is a momentary distortion in the general
communication pattern. It is considered necessary by the organizers in order
to highlight current issues and to provide a means of supplying new information
and arriving at consensus. The programme and meeting session structure represent
3 momentary compromise between:
- the organizers' understanding of what participants really want or are
willing to pay to receive
- the organizers' understanding of what they themselves want and what participants
- the organizers' understanding of what their sponsors want.
- and constraints of time, resources, and physical or technical facilities.
However whilst many conferences are organized primarily in the light of interests
perceived by the organizer, increasingly conferences must respond to a greater
degree to the real needs of the participant as expressed during the conference.
Conference participants are increasingly critical and less passive in their
response to sterile meeting environments and to seemingly arbitrary imposition
and manipulation of particular communication patterns during the course of
a conference. Experienced participants have 6 number of reasons for attending
a given conference. They have their own private agendas. For them the travel
expenses are in large part justified by the opportunity of meeting colleagues
with similar interests with which they may (or may not) have long-standing
The measure of a fruitful meeting is:
maximization of beneficial contact between participants with complementary
interests and commitments.
- maximization of participant ability
to initiate new action
inform and involve other interested participants
form groups and formalize group action (to the degree necessary).
- maximize flexibility of programme structure, meeting formal and associated
meeting room allocation without disrupting the coherence of the conference
as a credible setting capable of attracting key resource people.
Possibilities for technical support of improved meeting
Participant consensus expression
A simple device can be developed and distributed to participants, in the
same way as earphone devices are currently made available, which would permit
each participant to indicate any or all of the following:
agreement or disagreement with the speaker
- agreement or disagreement with the proposal under discussion
- desire to move onto the next point on the agenda
- desire for clarification of the point being made
- desire to adjourn the session
- desire to break into small group discussion sessions
or similar points.
The device given to each participant would consist of a set of 6 (or more)
switches corresponding to each of the above points. The switches would be
linked to a counting device such that when 27 participants pressed the first
switch a counter visible to all participants (including the speaker and the
chairman) would indicate "27". The total for each other point would
also be indicated at the same time. In this way, at a glance, all participants
in the meeting session could determine with greater accuracy the sense of
the meeting and how it should be continued. This would help to avoid meandering
sessions which tend to make conferences a disappointment and a waste of time.
The device as described could be put together from simple items already marketed.
A similar device technically is already used in some special classrooms to
enable the teacher to obtain feedback from pupils. A simplified device would
in fact be particularly useful in lecture-type situations whether in classrooms
or in conferences.
The great advantage of the device is that it help to change the pattern of
communication. Instead of all communications being mediated by the chairman
or speaker, participants are able to indicate to one another their assessment
of the meeting in a way which prevents the chairman from manipulating the
meeting on the basis of his own interoretation of the desires of participants.
The use of such a device would introduce much more immediacy into debates
since at every moment, in effect, a continuing vote is being made on a number
of features of the meeting. (If recorded, as is technically feasible, this
would be extremely valuable data for the evaluation of meeting effectiveness,
particularly if a normal voice recording was also available in parallel.)
A future development, less easy to implement, is the possibility of arranging
for participant-to-participant information flows so that sub-group formation
could be facilitated as opposition or support for a particular issue crystallized
during the course of a meeting session.
It frequently happens that a meeting room has no facility for equipping individual
participants with a microphone, or that this is considered economically unjustified.
Either the session is then conducted (a) without participation from the floor,
or (b) participants come to a microphone at the front, or (c) a microphone
on a long lead is taken to than by a hostess. These techniques are extremely
crude in practice and seriously inhibit involvement of participants -
they destroy the dynamics of a meeting, particularly when the microphone is
necessary for the interpretation.
It is not difficult to envisage a simple piece of equipment that could be
permanent, or installed if required prior to a meeting, or possibly in a few
minutes prior to a discussion period. This could consist of parallel wires
or rails, running the length of the room some three metres above the ground,
and supported in tension by vertical posts. The microphone would move over
the width of the room, between the parallel rails, on a wire. The connection
to the parallel rails could be so arranged that the microphone could be moved
the length of the room, or across the room, and then lowered to the person
desiring to speak. This movement could be done electrically or simply by a
hostess at the side of the hall. Several microphones could ba available on
the same set of parallel rails.
The concept of a consultant to advise on the organization of a conference
is well-accepted, as is the concept of a public relations expert to assist
in the smooth running of the conference in order to create the right impression.
It would seem that other types of consultant could also be usefully considered
in order to facilitate the meeting dynamics.
The following, for example, could assist:
(a) in an advisory capacity, for the conference dynamics as a whole, or
(b) in an advisory capacity during a particular meeting session
(c) by intervening in pre-determined ways in order to improve the dynamics.
(1) Meeting dynamics consultant: concerned primarily with: the general
pattern and intensity of communications flow; the domination of bottle- necks
and sterile patches and abusive manipulation of communication opportunities;
and attempting to promote the emergence of synergism from the totality of
isolated contacts and group interaction.
concerned primarily with bridging cultural gaps and creating an awareness
of cultural sensibilities which might otherwise be ignored creating offence
or otherwise hindering the establishment of good communications between participants.
(3) Inter-disciplinary consultant: concerned
primarily, in the case of interdisciplinary meetings, with bridging the gaps
in the communication between people with different disciplinary backgrounds.
With the progressive increase in specialization, the future may see the emergence
of a new type of conference professional, namely the inter- terminology interpreter
as constrasted with the present inter-language interpreter. Inter-disciplinary
interpretation could now be said to be achieved in the same way as interlanguage
conference interpretation fifty years ago.
Graphic mapping of discussion points and
(1) It is possible to produce one or more maps showing the relationships
between the issues which are the concern of the conference as a whole or of
a particular meeting session. These serve to sharpen the focus of debate
and are a basis for contact between similarly concerned participants. Clearly
such maps may be modified during the course of meeting sessions.
(2) The future may well see the emergence of a new type of conference professional
in contrast to the present stenographer or minute writer. This would be a
person able to isolate, display and inter- relate, on a large-screen graphic
display device, the points and relationships as they are
made and recognized by a speaker, as well as those attacked by him, or
by his opponents in debate, or reinforced by his supporters. Such a display,
and it reproduction as a map or series of maps at the adjournment of each
session would considerably s sharpen the focus of debate and give precision
to the pattern of contacts sought and made between participants and opposing
There is increasing use of parallel or concurrent group and commission meetings
during a conference. At present each such meeting session is part of one
programme established by a single organizing committee. However, participants
often have interests in 3 number of related organizations which each hold
conferences. Occasionally several "such bodies agree to hold their meetings
concurrently, or with a partial overlap, to permit participants to attend
sessions within both programme framsworks. This "multi-meeting"
technique could be developed, particularly with adequate technical support,
to permit a variety of organizations to hold their conference simultaneously,
with overlap and joint sessions wherever feasible.
Costing formal meeting sessions
A special typs of clock has been developed in Denmark to time meetings of
corporate executives, Before the meeting the salaries per minute of each
executive present is fed into the clock. As each minute of the meeting passes
the clock then also shows the total cost of the meeting up to that time.
An alternative for international meetings would be to show the cost par minuta
in relation to the travel expanses of participants, or in terms of an appropriate
portion of the conference budget.
Participant communications unit
Individuals can already obtain briefcase size portable communication terminals
which can be used to interface with a telephone system or a computer system.
Just as conference participants are issued (possibly on payment of a deposit)
with multi-channel earphons systems for use during a conference, so it would
be possible to issue them with communications units for use anywhere in the
conference complex or in their hotel rooms. This would be an ideal means
for storing and transferring messages and other information (1) from the organizers
to all (or selected) participants or (2) between participants as desired.
1. Mechanical voting: The concept of a voting board whereby each
participant can indicate, using a button on his desk, his vote on a particular
issue is now well-understood. This technique is however only used for formal
voting and not for the expression of participant opinion during the course
of a debate (as suggested in point A above). Future developments of this technique
will require that participants first identify themselves in some way (by inserting
a card or a special number) before their votes are accepted.
2. Weighted voting systems
Card assisted: By extending the use of the electronic voting
system noted in the previous paragraph, it will become possible to allocate
a definite number of votes to each participant according to some agreed
criteria. Once he identifies himself, he is then able to allocate however
many votes he has either for (or against) a particular issue, or else
to some other participant whom he allows to vote for him.
- Consensor: A device, known as the "Consensor". already
marketed in the United States (by Applied Futures Inc.. Connecticut), is
a quantifying voting device which can be used by participants to explore
and clarify attitudes and judgments concerning the questions and problems
that a meeting has set out to discuss. As currently marketed, it is suitable
for meetings of 5 to 16 participants. The hand-held unit enables each participant
to express his views by means of two switches: one to select between the
alternatives being voted upon; a second to indieate the intensity with
which the participant is in agreement or disagreement. The results are indicated
on a visual display unit visible to all participants.
- Complex voting: By using a computer to calculate and interrelate
votes, there is virtually no limit to the complexity and sutlety permissable
in a meeting voting system. Beyond the one-participant- one-vote system,
and the simple weighted voting systems lie many possibilities for interrelating
and weighting votes. These have not been explored. They are particularly
significant because it may well be that only in a meeting environment
equipped to facilitate such complex decision-making will it be possible
to establish the very delicate coalitions (conditional and temporary)
of partially opposing groups which may be the only degree of consensus
which can emerge. The technology and software capability is available.
The cost of the necessary electronic calculators now brings them within
the reach of every conference-goer's pocket. Such calculators could be
specially programmed or designed for conference-goers (as they are for
other specialized tasks).
Computer-assisted contact formation
The use of computers to assist in the organization of conferences, particularly
the administrative problems of mailing and registration, is now becoming accepted.
Software packages are being developed. This use of the computer does indeed
assist the conference organizer but it does not help the conference participant
- it may even give him a heightened impression of being a numbered body in
a participant orocessing machine.
Computer software packages can also be developed to move the dynamics of
a conference onto a new level in order to facilitate the kinds of communication
noted in the checklist.
The technique could work as follows, for example:
1. Individual registration cards: These would bean extension, of
the existing registration document. Different cards would be required for:
(a) non- specialist visitor; (b) specialist visitor: (c) ordinary participant;
(d) eminent participant (specialist); (e) eminent participant (non-specialist
etc. On these cars the participants would indicate (if they wished to benefit
from contact assistance):
1.1 Profile a. Topics of special interest
b. Preferred method of treating such subjects.
The participants would be able to modify any such profile during the course
of the conference as new issues emerged or alternative contact opportunities
1.2 Availability a. Which categories of participant should be informed in the case of complementarity
of interest and commitment.
b. Context preferred for exploring the topic (e.g. individual contact,
small group, large group, guided tours, etc.)
c. For what maximum period.
d. What he is prepared to contribute to a group session on the topic.
The participants would be able to modify any such profile during the course
of the conference as the characteristics of the participant categories became
clearer and as his available tine was reduced.
2. Event registration card: These
wpuld be prepared for each:
(a) exhibition stand; (b) planned meeting session; (c) planned informal
session; (d) audio-visual display; (e) guided tour; (f) etc. On these cards
would be indicated:
2.1 Profile a. Topics emphasized.
b. Method of treating the topic.
c. Preferred range of participant types.
The responsible officials would be able to modify any such profile during
the course of the conference if the range of topics included, or the nature
of the meeting, was changed in the light of preceeding events.
2.2 Restriction on participation a. Which categories of participant should be informed in the case of complementarity
b. Maximum number of participants.
c. Ability of the responsible body to supply further information, if requested.
As before, these restrictions could be changed during the course of the
conference in the light of participant reaction to the planned event within
the conference framework.
3. Computer-matching: The information
on all the cards would be sorted by computer in order to supply periodically
(e.g. 2 to 5 times per day):
a. to each participant: a personalized list of people with complementary
professional interests or commitments.
b. To each organizer: of a planned event: a list of people who have indicated
an interest in that event as described.
c. To each organizer of a proposed event: a list of people who have indicated
an interest in that event as described,
d. To all concerned: a revised allocation of meeting rooms and meeting
times, in the light of the interest manifested for particular events and the
physical and technical constraints.
4. Dynamics: By responding to the information received, all concerned
can modify their actions within the conference environment according to their
bast advantage end in the light of the possibilities which emerge from each
new contact made. Such a system lendsitself to many other possibilities,
including integration with conventional administration of the conference,
or with the computer conferencing technique described in the next section.
The computer conference is a new communication technique which is already
in use in a number of situations in the United States. Further developments
are envisaged but basically it is a means of enabling many people to "attend"
invisible meetings that run continuously 24 hours a day for as long as the
participants want. At its simplest level, it is a written form of a conference
telephone call. A participant can communicate with a group of people by typing
messages and reading, on a display screen or a printout, what the other people
are saying. The computer automatically informs the group when someone leaves
the discussion, permitting him to continue once again when he rejoins the
Major advantages over verbal communication are:
participants can be both geographically and chronologically dispersed;
many people can talk and listen simultaneously;
participants can contribute at their own convenience,rather than having
to wait until other speakers have finished, or being obliged to speak
quickly with inadequate time for reflection; o all messages for him are
stored until he wants to reply to them in order he chooses; o participant
contributions can be anonymous or identified by a number, leading to more
uninhibited discussions; o results of votes are presented only as distributions
and are therefore adequately secret; during the conference, participants
may communicate privately with one or more other selected participants,
leading to more rapid resolution of important issues;
a permanent record may be kept, and possibly indexed for selective
1. Long-distance computer conferencing
This "glamorous" form of computer-conferencing is unpopular with
the organizers of conventional meetings because it may lead to fewer international
meetings being held. In particular it offers a means of linking by satellite
contiguous regions between which travel is difficult (e.g. the West African
countries). These possibilities are currently being explored for some developing
2. Computer conferencing during large conferences at one location
The techniques being developed for long-distance computer-conferencing
can be used at much lower cost during the course of a large conference. Because
of the scepticism of conventional conference organizers, this possibility
has not been considered. There is however no reason why participants should
not have access to terminals, whether in the meeting rooms, in special rooms,
or in their hotel rooms (or with the use of the Participant Communications
Device described under point G above).
This technique could provide the basis for fulfilling all the requirements
noted in the participant communication checklist, including:
ability of a key person to respond selectively to questions addressed
facilitation of interest group formation in the light of emergent issues.
ability of all participants to exchange and channel messages in parallel
with any formal meeting sessions.
ability of organizers to contact any groups of participants.
ability to reschedule meeting sessions and individual contact.
ability to build up select lists of participants with particular interest.
ability to use computer analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of
the communication patterns during a particular period.
ability to arrange for the accurate invoicing of the communications
sent and received, with the ability to subsidize (completely or partially)
some Kinds of communication.
This paper has attempted to show that there is a whole range of masting techniques
requiring new kinds of technical equipment and support. These may not be
necessary for many conventional conferences but unless they are available
for some kinds of conference, the cost of such occasions will be recognized
as increasingly unjustified. Experience with such techniques and their technical
support could prove a determining factor in attracting conferences to particular
ANNEX 1: Letter from a group of disenchanted conference
I am writing to you on behalf of a group of international NGO executives
who have just returned from a meeting of two hundred persons from all parts
of the world - namely, the International Conference of..... On the way
back home we began talking about the effectiveness of such events. Some of
us attend meetings like this regularly and we are questioning their value.
This last conference on the....issue was just as sterile as the previous ones
in spite of hopes that we could start afresh. One sees the same faces, only
at different meeting sites; one hears the same positions defended and one
sits in the same king of hotel or conference room. Somehow we must find
another process for such international gatherings.
As we talked on the way home, we agreed that such meetings of 100-200 participants
(assembled at costs estimated at $100,000 as a minimum) are like eight cylinder
engines running on only two cylinders. We estimated that 85% of the group
listened while 5% spoke. Not only is this an extremely inefficient usb of
human resources, it means that many travelled all this way without ever having
the opportunity to express their needs and ideas. The more aggressive persons,
those speaking the conference language fluently - the conference professionals,
still dominate these events. Frankly we feel such meetings are often oppressive.....
It occurred to us that most advanced techniques were used to bring this Conference
together (jet planes, telex massages, computerized hotel reservation and participant
registration, etc.) but very archaic methods methods were used in the meetings
themselves. There were still the same speeches, plenary sessions, and poorly
organized working groups....
As we discussed what could be done it occurred to us that the solutions may
already exist because there are moments in such conferences when things suddenly
begin to happen.... Why not stimulate the organization of a conference that
facilitates those things which occur by accident and in spite of the set agenda?
In other words, why not approach the planning with the major priority on how
to help the participants share their particular concerns and find specific
resources for their needs? Is it possible for the conference to have no
agenda except to enable the participants to deal with their own diverse agenda?....