Technology Tornado

It's the law of Murphy: Your technology will fail at the worst possible moment. And Kathie Spitzer, vice president at Signature Meetings Group in St. Petersburg, FL, knows of Murphy all too well.

Last summer Spitzer was running a Democratic campaign event when disaster struck. Six hundred perspiring campaigners were packed into a humid hall that'd already seen technical trouble. Then the air conditioning died. As the steamy night dragged on, a speaker took the floor and attempted to run a streaming Internet video as part of his presentation. Six hundred pairs of eyes locked on the campaigners' video screen. They waited. Nothing happened. The screen was blank.

Spitzer's team sprang into action. "The system was down only 15 seconds, but it was a very long 15 seconds," she says. "It felt like an eternity." It didn't take long to discover the problem—too many users on the on-site registration system caused the wireless network to freeze up. Says Spitzer, "We warned the client to run the video from a DVD, but he didn't take our advice."

The speaker's video bombed because he'd used the wrong technology—streaming video from the Internet—instead of a far more reliable DVD. He chose the wrong meeting room technology despite being given accurate advice, and paid the price. The presentation lost its momentum and never got it back—a failed mission.

"The common element that runs through all meetings is the need to communicate, both with people at the conference, and with people back home at the office," says Seattle-based meetings tech expert Corbin Ball. "Planners need to think about how critical they are in enabling that sharing of information. With new technology always coming, we're just grappling with new ways to facilitate that sharing. Hopefully, the new ways of doing things are more efficient."

So meeting room technology exists primarily to facilitate communication—but that does not mean that the planner's role in making the right choices is any easier. Here is the key thing to consider when it comes to the technology you decide to employ at your meetings: How does it help you reach this meeting's goals? Don't pick something because it's fun or flashy, or because you think it will impress your clients. Pick the tool that allows the right information to be shared among the right people. It might be high-tech; it might be low-tech. But it had better meet the group's needs.

A Happy Medium

First, the technology you select must be appropriate for the group you're dealing with. For instance, don't pin high-tech RFID tags on a bunch of executives at a corporate retreat. And conversely, if you've got a group of engineers, their proficiency and expectations demand more than simple flipcharts.

The technological precedent set by previous meetings is a good starting point. "We look into the history of the group—the tools they've used in the past," says Spitzer. Plus, "The technology we use depends on attendees. At a sales meeting, they're not making decisions that, at that moment, affect the company's operations. But a senior-executive meeting tends to require more technology to keep them in touch with their head-quarters."

But Austin, TX-based meetings technology consultant Jeff Rasco warns that top execs quickly grow impatient with learning new technology. "The thought is that executives are high-powered people, and they have other people [operate technology] for them. If you're going to introduce them to technology at a meeting, you had better make it pretty easy. They aren't going to take the time to learn something new."

Here's the root of many such mistakes: "Sometimes people use technology for the wrong reasons—they're sold on the cool factor instead of using it for networking or education or whatever the meeting is for," explains Rasco. "You have to back up and look at the meeting process and determine what technology will suit it." So talk to the meeting stakeholders to identify the goals of the meeting. Once you've defined those goals, think about how the technology you're considering will support them.

Some events need to be high-tech, others high-touch. "If I'm having a coaching session, we use means to emphasize the face-to-face communication," says Michele Snock, global manager of meeting services at San Jose, CA-based Cisco Systems Inc. "But if the bulk of the meeting is about pushing information around, personal contact isn't as important." So electronic whiteboards connected to Web conferencing work fine for patching in attendees who could not physically be at the meeting.

Learning Your Tools

Once you've defined the goals of the meeting and your group's technological skill level, you still must learn all you can about the tools you choose for the meeting room. Failure to do so could mean disaster, as you're counting on the technology to deliver on specific tasks at the right moments.

Whether you learn from a specific vendor or a tech consultant (some charge by the hour, others by the project), make sure you test out the technology before the meeting. "We do a lot of sales presentations for potential clients," says Cisco's Snock. "We have to make sure every element runs perfectly the night before. There's no room for error in those meetings."

What's more, "Our top execs are usually presenting at very high-impact meetings for clients or for our salesforce, and they tend to use the high-level audiovisual tools. So that's more stressful and requires more preparation."

Finally, it's essential to have a plan in place in case any of the technology fails. "The success of the event depends on both the preplanning and the troubleshooting, so that you're prepared whenever unexpected situations occur," explains Spitzer. "Everything needs a contingency plan."


SIDEBAR

Wanted: CrackBerry Netiquette

Attendees' tiny gadgets have invaded meetings everywhere—and not for the better.

Thanks to the ever-growing presence of portable wireless devices in professional circles, your attendees are likely to find distraction during a meeting in their cell phones, laptops, or personal digital assistants (PDAs). For instance, handheld Internet devices called BlackBerries are proving especially popular among execs—in fact, they're sometimes called "CrackBerries" because of their addictive quality. That's why so many white-collar workers can't stop checking their e-mail while they're supposed to be paying attention.

Since portable wireless technology is still relatively new, rules of etiquette have not yet been uniformly established. A 2004 survey by Menlo Park, CA-based Robert Half Technology found that two-thirds of chief information officers think technology-related blunders are increasing in the workplace. This would include behavior at meetings, where the most common offenses include leaving cell-phone ringers on, sending instant messages and e-mail using wireless devices, and typing on laptops out of turn. Internet etiquette, or "Netiquette," is a sore spot as well.

The unchecked use of wireless devices at meetings is a drawback of the new gadgets, says Michele Snock, global manager of meeting services at San Jose, CA-based Cisco Systems Inc. Cisco has wireless connectivity throughout its corporate offices, and workers frequently tap away on their BlackBerries, laptops, and cell phones during meetings. It's best, she says, to address the issue at the outset of gatherings as part of housekeeping notes, by saying, "By the way, don't access your laptop, and don't use your cell phone during this meeting." But if she has to, Snock simply tells them, "Can you please stop that?"

But other planners say that asking doesn't always work. Kathie Spitzer, vice president at Signature Meetings Group in St. Petersburg, FL, wishes some venues would have "blackout" rooms where wireless devices wouldn't work at all. "Like everybody else, we beg and plead that people turn their cell phones off," she says. "But we haven't found a way of keeping their focus on the meeting."

Actually, some attendees think that breaking out a PDA and sending a few e-mails is an acceptable way of telling a meeting presenter to get on with it. "If I'm in a meeting and I'm getting bored, I'll pull out my BlackBerry," says Colin Smith, spokesperson for San Jose-based WebEx Communications. "This lets meeting leaders know they're losing the audience, and they need to change their tack."

It's debatable whether checking your e-mail is an acceptable way of expressing your feelings about a particular meeting, but some experts say that awareness of etiquette is rising as technology matures, and that's a good thing. "It used to be hip to always be on your cell phone. Now it's hip to have manners," says Ted Mullin, Boston-based operations manager for Robert Half Technology, which conducted the CIO survey. "Awareness is being raised quite a bit by companies that are developing formal and informal rules on the subject, but it really comes down to individual responsibility. Wireless devices do increase productivity when used appropriately."

But they damage meeting productivity when used improperly, and it's your job to make that known to attendees.