Tips for effective electronic meetings

Sometimes a software development team and their end users can’t be together in one location. That’s when electronic conferencing tools can be useful.

They are, in fact, as applicable to software development projects as they are to any business meeting. Technologies such as Microsoft Netmeeting, Databeam Farsite, Intel Proshare and PictureTel LiveShare can bridge the distance gap on software development projects for design workshops, design reviews, code walkthroughs and demonstrations. Here are some tips for taking full advantage of these tools.

First, choose the right tool. Most electronic conferencing tools allow multiple people to collaborate using a shared electronic whiteboard. The shared whiteboard is made up of a number of slides that are like pages on a flip chart.

The whiteboard can be used to present materials such as the agenda or a slide show, or to run interactive, multi-person workshops.

Some tools, such as Microsoft Netmeeting and Databeam Farsite, allow the sharing of any application that is running on any of the computers in the meeting. Application sharing is a good way to review a document with a team or to do a demonstration. Software development project meetings typically share applications such as visual design tools and text editors. Typically, the presenter will host the application and the participants will watch the walk through or demonstration. Control can be handed off to participants when an end-user asks to try a particular feature.

Some tools also include audio and video support. It is better to use the telephone instead. Telephone-based conference call services are better equipped for audio when there are multiple participants, and video is often just a distraction. All collaboration tools have a “chat” feature that can be used to avoid interrupting the current speaker when he or she is in the middle of a formal presentation.

Prepare for an electronic meeting the same as you would any meeting. However, we all expect electronic meetings, like conference calls, to be shorter than in-person meetings, so keep the agenda short and manage the time for each item. Send an e-mail to all participants with the conference name, call-in number and password, electronic conference server name and a pointer to instructions on its use. Include the agenda in the body of the e-mail, not as an attachment. Attach any slides or handouts that will be used during the call.

Prepare the whiteboard in advance with the agenda, applicable workshop tools (for example, an action item list, cause/effect template etc.) and the slides required for your meeting. If you need to use Microsoft PowerPoint to present your slides, make sure you turn off animations and slide transitions. No matter how fast you think your network is, animations and dissolves will be too slow.

Some tips for conducting the meeting include:

Run a roll call from the attendee list after a brief period of socializing. Do not ask, “Who is on?” or try to keep track of people as they join.

Ask questions in the form: “Does anyone object?” instead of “Does everyone agree?” Decide in advance that silence is consent.

“Chat” should be used for all sidebar conversations or “whispers” to send a message privately.

Use “round tables” to specifically request participation from each attendee in turn. These can be used for things like Q&A, brainstorming and action items.

The benefit of using these conferencing tools is effective information sharing between people at different locations. Additionally, meetings can be held more frequently or even on an ad-hoc basis to increase the exchange of information within project teams, since electronic meetings incur no travel expenses. Documenting and auditing electronic meetings is as simple as saving whiteboard pages when agreed upon. The return on investment for using these tools is huge. And finally, you’ll never have to worry about who was supposed to buy the doughnuts.

Nelson is chief scientist and managing director of the Applied Technology Research Group of SHL Systemhouse, a dispersed team of technology specialists working across Canada and the U.S. He is at