A few thoughts on peer-to-peer networks in meetings

I was rereading this post from 2008 this morning and thinking again about this little model, spotted then by Roland Harwood.

The gist of the post, and Roland’s argument, was that we tend to overvalue networks that look like A and B, partly because we can’t follow all the conversations in C, and therefore assume they are of little value.

Look at most organisational charts or processes for meetings, and they mostly reflect that kind of thinking.

I was thinking there could be an animated version of A as well. This might represent what happens in meetings when there is a keynote speaker, followed by say Q and A. The node that gets all the connections would change but the essential model would remain the same. There would be superficial novelty but not much real change.

In practice, one of my beefs with Q and A is that it purports to introduce interactivity to meetings but is often deadly dull. Generally after a speaker has already gone on too long, the more fidgety members of the audience need to do something different, and that may take the form of an overlong question that actually is more annoying to much of the audience than the speaker has been. What would often be much better is a complete break in the pattern. Have you noticed the energy level soar when we break for drinks? I don’t think it’s just the liquids.

I think plenary sessions of all kinds are very vulnerable to this kind of hijacking. Someone speaks and someone else bursts in with what they think is a helpful or important point… but what is also happening is that we are forcing everyone else in the room to stay stuck in listening mode… except for the most impatient who will be queueing up to leap in with their point.

I think it’s challenging for us all to maintain a sense of the whole audience in the room, and for processes to break down to one-to-one conversations that have to be witnessed by people who are not that interested. If you can’t break the plenary format, I’m in favour of maintaining very tight boundaries around timing of contributions… but really, I think the best approach is move to a more C-like format.

One objection to those more informal methods comes from people who say that they can’t know everything that’s happening in the room. But I would counter that methods A and B only allow the illusion of hearing everything by throttling the amount that can actually be said by most people and forcing it to remain unspoken.

I was talking to someone about this earlier, and set in the broader context of the rise of peer-to-peer technologies. It feels to me like our habits in meetings and organising are rather lagging what technically is now possible. I’d add that for those things that do have to be sent out in a one-way fashion, there are loads of ways of doing that online that don’t actually require human beings to go the trouble and cost of being in the same physical space together.

3 thoughts on “A few thoughts on peer-to-peer networks in meetings

  1. Adrian Segar

    Johnnie, I agree with everything you said here. When you consider the money, time, and effort getting hundreds of people together in a room, it’s hard to think of circumstances where traditional plenaries are a smart choice compared to an online broadcast of the same presentation.

    I think we can and should redesign plenaries to take full advantage of the amazing opportunities that we usually ignore when we bring many people together face-to-face. I am running a couple of plenaries this month, one opening, one closing, for ~250 people.

    At the opening plenary I’ll be facilitating opportunities for people to learn what they want and need to learn from each other in small groups.

    At the closing plenary I’ll be giving participants structured time to reflect on what they have learned at the event and what they would consequently like to change in their lives. The session will start with private reflection and work, followed up by small group voluntary sharing.

    I think that these kinds of plenaries are more useful to the people who attend them as they take far better advantage of the resources in the room as compared to the expertise/experience of a single presenter. They provide tailored, just-in-time learning instead of a one-broadcast-fits-all experience.

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  2. Venessa Moffat

    Hi Johnnie,

    Definitely agree to a certain extent. At the one end there is the Update Meeting as one extreme (I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about this one http://chessinthedark.com/2012/05/03/death-to-the-update-meeting/) where essentially all parties are giving their updates in turn to the ‘leader’, and then there is the fully-distributed, network model as the other extreme. Whilst I appreciate that the distributed communication model is inevitable (if it isn’t already here), but after reading your post, I’m wondering how we will ever get anything done without a little bit of organisation, co-ordination and leadership.

    So you could be right about the traditional hierarchy being outdated and counterproductive, but maybe we could look at how knowledge is transfered rather than static organisational maps?

    Adrian, Johnnie, we could consider models which pull information techniques rather than push, which is the traditional face-to-face plenary. For example, data-warehousing which personalises dashboards for those who need access to centralised information. These can be pulled at will rather than attending a meeting with each department – thus supporting model C by using the technology.

    Great post – made me think. :)

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