1975 | Draft

Meeting Types: Old and New

From conference organization for well-behaved participants
to conference organization for the satisfaction of participants

- / -

6th International Congress on Congress Organization (Kyoto, 1975): Technical facilitation of meeting dynamics and participant interaction (Part 2).
Published in International Associations, 31, 1976, 1, pp. 88-90

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This is the second of three articles based on a presentation to the session on Technical Equipment at the 6th International Congress on Congress Organization. The first article is concerned with the types of meeting for which these remarks are particularly relevant. The third article will be concerned with specific possibilities for the technical support of improved conference dynamics.

In Part I of this paper (Meeting Failure and Participant Frustration, January 1976), it was suggested that 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 physical, technical, and administrative facilities and services are used competently with the guidance of experienced personnel;
  2. the programme of the conference is well-planned 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 certain circumstances. By coming to a clearer understanding of the flows of communication for different purposer, it may be possible to increase the flexibility with which meetings are designed and conducted. Part I of this paper suggested that new communication flows were required. Part III discusses some technical means of facilitating such flows.

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 A).

Diagram A: Types of meeting
Types of meeting

1. Hierarchical meetings (see Diagram 1)

  • 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.
Diagram 1: Hierarchical Diagram 2: Small group
Hierarchical group mall group

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 (see Diagram 2)

  • 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.

Diagram 3: Amorphous meeting Diagram 4: Network meeting
Amorphous meeting Network meeting

3. Amorphous meetings (Diagram 3)

  • 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 occasion : These include unstructured receptions 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 conside' rable 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 (Diagram 4) 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 impostion 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 satisfaction 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 requirements during the course of the conference. Yet it is precisely the emergence of these requirements which shows that the conference is an occasion on which something new is occurring. Because all significant interaction is supposed to take place within the planned sessions, mediated by the speaker and chairman, no attention is normally 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.

Conclusion It is at least worthwile investigating how some technical assistance can be given to improving the meeting dynamics when such improvement is considered desirable by in a particular setting. Part III of this paper suggests a number of possibilities. The interesting question is what new types of meeting would emerge through use of such possibilities.

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