Meeting Overload

The corollary to information overload is meeting overload.  Although meetings were common decades ago, they have proliferated in an age of easy communication.  Conference calls (and even video conference calls) with far flung colleagues, a host in Chicago, participants in Vienna, Sydney, and Jerusalem, among others, are not uncommon.  What is crucial here is the information that is missing in these calls.

Participants in such meetings may believe that they are communicating far more information than they actually are.  Over 40 years ago, Ray L. Birdwhistell demonstrated that “no more than 30 to 35 percent of the social meaning of a conversation or an interaction is carried by the words.”  The rest is communicated with kinesics, non-verbal behavior, commonly called body language, such as facial expression and gestures.

Such body language might convey many specific meanings and their interpretation may be both context-based and culture bound.  Without the ability to see and interpret kinesics, there is a significant risk of misinterpretation, particularly in intercultural communications.

In addition, many knowledge workers today are called upon to attend more meetings than would be necessary to do their jobs.  Many tend to invite more colleagues than necessary to meetings, a process reminiscent of the overuse of the copy function in e-mail.

Ever since AT&T (at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows) unveiled the Picturephone, companies have been promoting videoconferencing systems to replace face-to-face meetings.  The technology today is greatly improved, with systems that emulate an in-room experience using large screen displays and technology that eliminates jerky video, but they are too costly to be placed into service for the hundreds of thousands of meetings which take place every day amongst knowledge workers.

Meetings are, of course, necessary but as Rosalind said in As You Like It, there can be too much of a good thing.

But companies are doing something about the problem.  IBM introduced ThinkFridays across the company. Friday afternoons everywhere are to be free of non-essential meetings and interruptions.  The practice was informally begun by IBM programmers, who used the time to conduct research or write papers in relative peace.

Similarly, Dow Corning sponsors a no-meetings week once each quarter, banning non-essential meetings.  This of course begs the question, what is a non-essential meeting.  Share your thoughts on this; e-mail me at meetings@basex.com

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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