Small IEEE Logo Region 3 Newsletter
Volume 15 Number 4
Page 3

November 2000


 

What’s All This Collaboration Stuff About, Anyway?

By Charles J. Lord, PE
IEEE Region 3 Conference Chair

For many of you, the collaboration initiatives that the Region 3 electronic conferencing (e-conf) committee have been touting for the last year may seem like the latest corporate buzzwords like "synergy" and that most dreaded "paradigm shift." However, there is a lot more to what the committee has discovered. In fact, it has resulted in a true paradigm shift – or a new way of seeing and understanding things – within the leadership of the Region. From what started out as an attempt to cut costs by holding meetings over the internet, our committee has re-discovered many of the secrets to holding fruitful, successful meetings and ways to work together and share knowledge – many times without ever holding a meeting. As a result, our face-to-face meetings have become more social gatherings; along the way we learned that this is a critical part of working together, also.

Although the technical part of how this new way of working is covered in numerous sources (see "For More Information"), we will look at the basics of how electronic meetings work in Region 3. A volunteer organization such as the IEEE has to work under much more stringent conditions than most corporate settings. As many of our volunteers do not have sophisticated computers with video or microphone capabilities or high-speed internet connections, we had to find ways that people could effectively communicate using "lowest common denominator" resources. We soon found that we could use Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, for extremely effective meetings with the addition of some very common-sense rules and protocols. But, at the same time, we also found that the use of the traditional rules of meetings – commonly broken these days – made these meetings as effective or in some cases more effective than many traditional face-to-face meetings. One clear example of this change in thinking comes from none other than Scott Adams’ recent Dilbert newsletter:

"An angry Induhvidual recently accused me of "cheating" at our various work meetings. I asked how. The Induhvidual replied that, ‘You always prepare for our meetings and that gives you an unfair advantage.’"

We found that many of the tools that were already available to us gave us a phenomenal advantage: public posting of detailed agendas well ahead of the meeting; all committee and individual reports posted to the group before the meeting; published minutes (in fact, a detailed log of the entire meeting!); and published action items and results (along with deadlines and goalposts). Can face-to-face meetings benefit from these? Of course! But, you still have to travel to get there. How does one meet with their fellow IEEE volunteers without leaving their home or office? Let’s look at the basics.

The Business Side of Chat

The first mode of conferencing that the Region 3 e-conf team looked at was a mirror of the familiar face-to-face meeting. As mentioned already, IRC or Internet Relay Chat was chosen as the medium. Chat is more commonly known as a public communications tool, mostly used on public, uncontrolled servers in a form of internet CB radio. For this reason, many people are hesitant to accept IRC as a business tool. The secret is the use of a private IRC server. Such a server was installed at IEEE headquarters and is password protected to avoid outside people from clogging the server with non-IEEE business. The rest of the secret is the use of some simple yet powerful protocols. Every meeting has a facilitator that controls the flow of the meeting. Only one person has the "floor" (as directed by the facilitator) and can type in their comments. Anyone else can raise their hand to speak next by typing a "C" (I have a comment to make) or "Q" (I have a question to ask) and pressing "Enter". Once the first person has finished ‘speaking’, the facilitator calls on the first person to raise their hand by sending "GA [name]" where [name] is the alias of the person called on (GA is shorthand for "go ahead"). How do you know the speaker has finished? If they are not, they end each line with three dots (an ellipsis or "…"). When they are finished, they end the line with a period – unless they are asking a question in which case they end with "?". For a good example of how this works, see the URL in the bibliography for the log of a past meeting. The log of the meeting is another great tool. Anyone who has ever looked at their notes from a meeting and wondered "who said that?" or "what did so-and-so say?" will greatly appreciate that the log captures everything said in a meeting and who said it. But as great as IRC works for us in replacing meetings, we found something even better:

The Non-Meeting

Once we developed and proved our protocol for IRC, we worked on what we called "asynchronous" meetings, as not everyone needed to be on-line at the same time. These included email, private newsgroups, and web postings. The big advantage of these was that not everyone had to take a specific time out of their day for a meeting; each could contribute at their leisure. We also found that some common-sense tools could make these "async" meetings work many times better than either of the previous "meeting" models – thus the non-meeting. We will look at some of the tools in detail.

The Scope of a Message

The first rule of working together is identifying who a message is for and thus how it will be read. Although on the surface this may seem trivial, this rule is broken often. How many times have you gotten email that was a "thread" of quoted emails back and forth between others that you have no interest in, or worse, shouldn’t be reading due to confidentiality or propriety? This is an example of personal communication being used as public communication. Email is an outgrowth of personal communications in the same vein as a telephone call, face-to-face conversation, or letter. You would not speak to a colleague the same way you would address a gathering of 50 colleagues. Not only is your oration and inflection changed, but the context of your words are much more tempered in a group environment. This simple change is recognized when posting a message to a public environment such as a newsgroup or message board. The result is actually much clearer communications and a better understanding of one another. You also recognize that you are speaking to a number of other people and if the writer expends more effort, work (in reading and understanding) is saved by the many readers. By recognizing the scope of our words (i.e. who is this intended for and how will they interpret this?) we can become much more powerful communicators and get much more work done. But what are some of the more clear-cut tools and techniques?

Re: Your Message

Is there any doubt as to why email spammers are successful in getting you to open messages with subject lines like the ones above? We misuse and underuse one of the most powerful tools in email and news postings – the subject line. The subject of a message should clearly and briefly address the heart and soul of your message. Even responses should avoid the "Re: I am repeating your subject line" trap. Virtually all email and newsreader programs allow you to write a new subject line when you respond to another’s message. Try changing it to a more descriptive title next time.

Yes.
>Do you think we should buy it?
>Do you think we should rent it?
>Do you think we should forget it?

Quoting is a powerful tool for clarifying messages; it can also be the best tool for totally confusing your message. Quoting is best used in small doses and placed before your answer. Think of it as the "salt" in your message. None or too much and your message is unpalatable. By developing the habit of editing a quoted message down to the part you are answering, then adding your answer, you can avoid confusion, misunderstanding, and wasted time.

For More Information

This article has just scratched the surface of the power of working together electronically. I hope it has whetted your appetite for more information. The e-conf committee’s website is at http://ewh.ieee.org/reg/3/e-conf and includes many references to tools as well as a manual on the use of our protocols. For more theory in internet collaboration, see Jon Udell’s book Practical Internet Groupware. The first four chapters of the book are readable on the web at http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/pracintgr/chapter/index.html. We also use many of the principles of the book How to Make Meetings Work : The New Interaction Method by Michael Doyle and David Straus.

If your IEEE group - whether a section, chapter, branch, council, etc - is interested in joining your colleagues in working together using these techniques, the e-conf committee stands ready to help with resources including training.  Contact Bill Ratcliff, the committee chair, at w.ratcliff@ieee.org or you can contact the author at c.j.lord@ieee.org.


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