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Getting the Most Out of Virtual Collaboration

Getting the Most Out of Virtual Collaboration

David Rutley's picture
David Rutley
September 16th, 2011

You wanted to meeting to be live, but it just can’t happen that way. Now this critical collaboration between business partners must be brokered over a conference call. What can you do to ensure that this is the success that it has to be?

Node Model

Yes, your meeting will be hosted virtually, but that is not an excuse not to bring as many people together into the same room as you possibly can. If you are hosting a conference call meeting that involves 3 sites and 25 people, reserve a conference room in each site and ensure that people are aware they are expected to participate in the call from that conference room.

The more people you have face to face the more you can be assured that folks are paying attention, engaged, and focused on the discussion at hand.

Strong Facilitation

Facilitation is important in every meeting, but in virtual meetings you have to take a very proactive stance. As you move into each topic ensure folks understand

  • What you are trying to achieve?
  • Why you are trying to achieve it?
  • What if any inputs they should be referencing?
  • How much time you have to accomplish your objectives?

In addition, as a facilitator of a virtual meeting you have to be very aware of what voices you are hearing and just as important what voices you are not. If you have progressed half way through a topic, and have heard no one from a particular site or stakeholder group, pause the conversation and directly ask them if they have any feedback or contributions. This ensures no group is struggling with technology, feeling disenfranchised because others are speaking up first, etc.

Finally you need to effectively manage “dead air.” In a face to face meeting there may be moments where you want to leave a group pondering a question and allow the silence to hang there, not so in virtual collaborations, people are more likely to think that they have been cut off or wonder if someone is on mute than to ponder the weight of the question in front of them.  As you hit pockets of dead air be prepared to move the meeting on to the next area of focus, invite the next speaker to begin their presentation, or directly ask a question of someone or group on the call.

Structure and Process

Having a clear agenda distributed well before the virtual collaboration is critical. But you must always assume fewer people will read it than will not. So spend the first few minutes of your meeting reviewing the objectives and agenda so folks understand what they are committing to.

The structure of your agenda is critical to your success in a virtual collaboration. Follow this general process – Question – Evidence – Discussion – Conclusion – Next Steps. This allows time for both presentations of existing ideas as well as bringing in new and different perspectives before moving to conclusion.

  1. Question – What is the question we are trying to answer? Why is it important? Who is asking it?
  2. Evidence – What information do we have about this question? What facts have been identified? What work has already been accomplished?
  3. Discussion – Given our knowledge of this issue, what do we think possible answers might be? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these responses?
  4. Conclusion – What is the best path forward? Which of our proposed answers are right for the organization at this time?
  5. Next Steps – How do we move this work forward? Who owns it? What is the next specific set of deliverables?

Deliverables

One of your critical success factors in a virtual collaboration is the speedy publishing of accurate meeting outcomes. Lacking the momentum that often is built during an effective face to face collaborative meeting it becomes very important to ship out a quick, concise, but comprehensive view of the meeting outcomes and any specific next steps. Given that people were in different rooms, with different notes, and different distractions having one version of the “truth” of the meeting becomes important. I’d suggest asking for feedback when you send the deliverable out so that folks feel like if something has not been captured or has not been captured accurately they have the permission to send you edits. The deliverable is as much a device to increase the ownership in the meetings outcomes as it is anything else.

Enabling Technologies

The tools that support virtual collaboration become more and more effective every year that passes. Depending on your budget you can invest in large enterprise portals for collaboration or smaller point solutions. At minimum I recommend you invest in a “co-browsing” solution that allows each of the participants/sites on the call to be looking at the same file at the same time in the same place.  Webx is one popular version of such a tool, though some of the same functionality can be found in Google docs, a free web service.

What are your hints and tips for effective virtual collaboration?

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