The next time you’re in a meeting and someone turns to their laptop to find something to share with the group, start counting – one, one thousand… Just how long does their disengagement from the conversation last? What happens to the collaborative dialog?  Does this cause the entire meeting to pause?  Technology, and our devices, now play an important role in the meeting room, and it’s important to ask – what impact does it have on productivity?  I can see the frustration on colleagues faces when a meeting pauses while someone searches for a video cable that matches their laptop…this isn’t a surprise, collaboration is fundamental to the human experience and is based on subtle behavior cues that have taken thousands of years to evolve.

When widgets and apps start interrupting this process, it can be more than frustrating.  Interestingly enough, studies have shown that the use of information resources in meetings – laptops, phones, even pens and paper – leads to a pause in conversation (and collaboration) that can last more than six seconds.  I’ve always interpreted these studies to show that interruptions that last more than six seconds in a real-time collaboration have a significant impact on productivity.  Things like speed of recall, performance on team problem solving tasks, and even how long consensus is maintained are impacted by the length of interruptions during a collaborative meeting.

Sadly, in most collaborative meetings, interruptions due to technology easily exceeds six seconds as people search for relevant files, pass around video cables and disengage to fiddle with their laptops. For a meeting size of four people, this happens more than three times per meeting when computers are being used. Studies have also found people prefer to use these resources as quickly as possible – six seconds – and they prefer that others do the same. Thus the Six Second Collaborative Meeting Rule is born.

The Six Second Collaborative Meeting Rule
Does this really matter? After all it’s only six seconds (or sometimes 30). The answer is yes. The problem comes when technology – and people using the technology – limit the level of collaboration that can take place during meetings. These studies come straight out of the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) community and its sub-fields of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). If you’re interested in forming an opinion on your own, I suggest following the HCI conference proceedings this year.  Until only recently most of the research the groups have done focused on asynchronous (document sharing) and distant collaboration. (Not a surprise given the overwhelming focus on remote collaboration technologies versus proximate). Now, with recent advances in wireless streaming there is a lot of effort going into proximate collaboration and how it can be leveraged.

With the increased use of BYOD and mobile devices in meetings, the number of disengagements from dialog and collaboration in meetings is increasing.  That is, if nothing is done about it. Companies should be looking to deploy technologies that can enhance and simplify the in-room sharing experience.

To gain a better perspective on how things have evolved, it’s good to first understand the evolution of meetings once we moved beyond simple pen and paper and entered the world of teleconferencing. Because of the teleconferencing heritage that is so deeply rooted in telephony:

  1. Real-time content sharing is lost in lieu of participants’ video.
  2. Only One-to-One and One-to-Many paradigms are supported, which leads to “presentation” and not “collaboration.”
  3. The in-room experience for participants has been ignored for remote-focused components of collaboration. (Instant messaging and Brady Bunch video arrays of remote participants faces)

Collaborative Meeting Rule

Today, the in-room, energetic sharing of ideas is being lost due to these “technical advancements.”  The future of effective, collaborative meetings in the room, and how technology can be used to support it, and not distract from it, is one of the most important open problems for the corporate enterprise.

What technology is your business using to ensure a collaborative meeting?  Is technology limiting collaboration in your business meetings?


About Christopher Jaynes

Jaynes received his doctoral degree at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he worked on camera calibration and aerial image interpretation technologies now in use by the federal government. Jaynes received his BS degree with honors from the School of Computer Science at the University of Utah. In 2004, he founded Mersive and today serves as the company's Chief Technology Officer. Prior to Mersive, Jaynes founded the Metaverse Lab at the University of Kentucky, recognized as one of the leading laboratories for computer vision and interactive media and dedicated to research related to video surveillance, human-computer interaction, and display technologies.

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