Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
of Laetus in Praesens
Laetus in Praesens Alternative view of segmented documents via Kairos


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 (Kyoto, 1-4 December 1975). In: New Techniques in Congress Organization: proceedings of the 6th International Congress on Congress Organization. Brussels, UIA, 1977, pp. 68-76. Also in: International Associations 28, 1, 1976, pp. 34-37 and 28, 2, pp. 88-93.

Meeting types
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


A 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 efficiently run.

This paper is concerned with the types of meeting which risk being judged a failure under such circumstances.

A 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 specifically to:

(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 session.

This 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.

Meeting types

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 1).

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 between participants.

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 of disorder.

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 meeting. 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.

Disadvantages: These 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 programme restructuring.

The 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 programme.

Such 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.

The 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 place?

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 framework

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 interested.
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 are received. 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 contact meetings,
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, etc. 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 occasions.

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 communications * 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 conference, etc.) * what maximum period he is prepared to allocate to such a contact * what he is prepared to do in any session specifically arranged for his participation.
c. Ability to exchange messages with (possibly unknown) participants to ensure, if necessary, that they define precisely the purpose of any proposed contact meeting. 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 his attention.
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 messages. 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 them.

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 is inadequate

The following phenomena may be observed in an efficiently run conventional conference:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. During meeting sessions, a discontented crowd may form around the coffee bar.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 organization

  1. 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 to others)
    • 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 session.
    • the allocation of audio-visual equipment and simultaneous interpretation facilities to meeting rooms according to revised requirements.
  2. 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.
  3. Necessity for organizers to be able to shift the balance of communication patterns between
    • an essentially hierarchical mode
    • a small group session mode
    • an amorphous meeting mode.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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:
    1. the organizers' understanding of what participants really want or are willing to pay to receive
    2. the organizers' understanding of what they themselves want and what participants should want.
    3. the organizers' understanding of what their sponsors want.
    4. 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 working relationships.

The measure of a fruitful meeting is:

    1. maximization of beneficial contact between participants with complementary interests and commitments.
    2. maximization of participant ability
      • to initiate new action
      • inform and involve other interested participants
      • form groups and formalize group action (to the degree necessary).
    3. 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 dynamics

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:

    1. agreement or disagreement with the speaker
    2. agreement or disagreement with the proposal under discussion
    3. desire to move onto the next point on the agenda
    4. desire for clarification of the point being made
    5. desire to adjourn the session
    6. 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.

Travelling microphone

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.

Meeting consultants

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 or (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.

(2) Inter-culturalconsultant: 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 issues

(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 groups.


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.

Computer-assisted voting

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

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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 become evident.

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. e. etc. 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. d. etc. 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 of interest. b. Maximum number of participants. c. Ability of the responsible body to supply further information, if requested. d. Etc. 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.

Computer conferencing

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 group.

Major advantages over verbal communication are:
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 regions. 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:


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 conference centres.

ANNEX 1: Letter from a group of disenchanted conference participants (extracts)

Dear Colleague,

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?....

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

For further updates on this site, subscribe here