Evaluating the symposium design

The Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium has been a success. As Birte @asmuss pointed out in the concluding session, the declared goal of the symposium was to

to assess the state of the emergent research field of meeting science (or meeting research) … and to foster interdisciplinary dialogue through a multidisciplinary network of scholars with a shared interest in face-to-face meetings.

The symposium was certainly full of interdisciplinary dialogue and it also looks like we created a network that will outlast the event (evidenced by the articulated will to meet again next year or in two years). We also shared our various views on meetings and thereby created a shared understanding of the diversity of the field. In that sense, we also assessed the field.

I could leave it at that and look forward to the next symposium. But I have put a lot of thought into the planning of every part of the symposium, and not everything worked 100 percent as intended. So I think taking a close look at these details can be rewarding not only for anyone organizing similar events but also as a contribution to our field of study.

So I will proceed in several steps. First, I will describe in this first post how the symposium was planned and what I wanted to achieve with various parts of the symposium. I will then (in the coming days) post replies to each of the different parts in which I say how it went in practice, according to me. Anyone else is free to post their views too (please make sure you quote the part that you are referring to in your reply).

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So here we go, these were my plans:

General organizing principles

This symposium is not just another academic workshop or conference. It constitutes the time that meeting researchers across disciplines will meet. As much as I trust that this event can hardly fail, given the enthusiasm expressed by the participants long before the event, I am well aware of the pitfalls of discussions across a large diversity of research interests, approaches, methodologies, and theoretical repertoires.

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  1. Since the main aim was to create a community through shared experience, I decided that there would be no parallel sessions.
  2. No keynote lectures: Because the aim is to facilitate an inclusive exploration of existing approaches to meetings, it would be counter-productive to key the discussion in a certain way or to highlight specific individuals beyond already existing prominence and reputation.
  3. Since another aim was to discuss the field of meeting science, I decided that individual papers should not be the main focus of the discussion. Instead, the CFP asked participants to write short position papers on one of three questions: 1.) What makes the meeting a useful category in research and how does it differ from neighbouring categories?, 2.) Which are the main challenges that meeting researchers face and how do they relate to the challenges faced by meeting practitioners? 3.) What kind of data is necessary to study meetings empirically? In particular, how important is data about the external context in which the meeting takes place or about internal processes of meeting participants? These three questions would be discussed in three “thematic sessions”. For those prospective participants who did not want to answer any of these questions, there was the possibility to submit a paper on any topic to an open session. Because these papers would lack a common question, they would be briefly presented in Pecha Kucha format to facilitate discussion across papers. However, since the majority of papers were submitted for the open sessions, the original themes were modified to accommodate papers with a similar research interest.
    The idea was that the papers would provide us with a pool of shared material that we have all read and which represents the existing diversity of the field. My hope was that people would refer to papers and use them as examples or to illustrate a point they are making during the discussions, but it was clear that (given #1 above) it would not be possible to discuss all papers in detail. The aim was not to provide direct feedback to the authors but to allow the authors see their papers in the new light of the broader field.
    I anticipated that the discussion might easily get hooked on one or a few papers (because that is the usual ritual at academic conferences) and I discussed this with @CCGPierre beforehand. Our plan was to use the guiding questions identified in the opening session as a tool for bringing the discussion back to a more general level whenever the group would dwell to long on a single paper.
  4. Use of MeetingSphere: I also wanted to use this opportunity to do something about what I consider an extreme waste of resources at most academic conferences: the fact that only very few thoughts can be articulated in the given time frame of a session. I think of it like that: a bunch of experts on a topic (usually between 15 and 50) travel long hours and pay quite an amount of money to be able to sit together in a room, listening to four or five people talking about their shared topic of interest. Then another four or five of them get to exchange a few more or less interesting remarks and that’s basically it.Of course,there is a lot of additional informal networking going on after the session, but I nevertheless can’t help but think of most of the brilliant ideas, questions, and comments that circulate in the heads of the silent majority as lost. Or at least as the session as a lost opportunity for articulating these ideas and possibly letting them interact. This is nothing new: GDSS researchers in the 1980s saw this silent majority as wasted resources and used computer networks to make this resource accessible. In addition, these systems allowed anonymous input, further reducing the impact of social hierarchies and pressures of conformity. This is why we decided to use MeetingSphere as a way of multiplying the the amount of input into the symposium. Pierre also stressed how this input would also provide us with a detailed documentation of the symposium.
  5. Lots of opportunity for informal interaction: Despite the efforts for improving the joint discussions in all our sessions,I believed that the informal interactions in breaks and during dinner constitute an essential part of the colloquium. So coffee breaks had to be at least 30 and lunch 90 minutes. To make sure that everyone stays with the group as much as possible, I decided to pay for as many meals as possible: two joint lunches, three dinners and a joint breakfast. In addition, by hosting almost all participants at the same hotel, I further increased opportunities for interaction (breakfast, walking to and from the hotel).
  6. Group or circular seating, not theater style: To facilitate interaction during the sessions, I wanted a room where tables and chairs could be re-arranged from the default theater setup to group tables of 6-7 people.To find such a room which would also accommodate 50-60 people was not easy, because seminar rooms usually have a capacity of 40 people or less. The business school has one such room and it was already booked. The one we ended up using on Campus Haga was also booked but with a minor teaching event that could be moved to a smaller room.

Opening session

10 minute Icebreaker

Goal: To make everyone comfortable with the people at their table.
Method/Tool: Every participant receives a random card from the Group Works deck in their conference kit and is asked to talk about it with the other people at the table. There are also additional cards on each table in case someone does not like their card. The idea of the randomly assigning rather than having participants pick the card was to allow participants to distance themselves from the card, thus making it easier to talk about it than when you pick the card yourself (making it part of who you are and forcing you to talk about the card in that way). Originally, the idea was that participants would stick their card into their name tag so that it could work as a conversation starter, but I was unable to obtain the type of name tag pockets that would have been necessary for this.

30 minutes: Mapping the field

Goal: To visualize the diversity of approaches to meetings represented in the room in order to make people aware of it and give them a sense of being a legitimate part of the emerging meeting science community.
Method/Tool: The facilitator presents a coordinate system that he has previously used to map different approaches to meetings (meetings-in-context vs meetings-as-context and meetings-in-focus vs meetings-out-of-focus). Then the floor is open for anyone to briefly describe in what way they are interested in meetings (or how would characterize what other meeting researchers do). The facilitator takes notes on the whiteboard using the coordinate system for orientation.

85 minutes: Identify guiding questions for the symposium

Goal: To give participants ownership of the symposium while identifying ten questions that shall guide our discussions in all sessions. These questions should also serve as tools for steering the discussions away from individual papers and specific questions that may not be interesting for all participants (as mentioned in the general principles above).
Method/Tool: Already before the symposium event, participants have been informed about this exercise and asked to take note of questions that come to mind while reading the papers.
During the actual session:

  1. 15 minutes individual input of questions into MeetingSphere. Everyone can see everyone else’s input and react to it (commenting).
  2. 30 minutes: going through the list of questions visible on the big screen and merging similar questions into one. Each table can propose similar questions for merging and when there are no objections they do the merge (or the facilitator does it). That way, the long list will be reduced in length and a shared sense is created of the questions that people have in mind.
  3. 15 minutes: But the list will probably still be too long so we need to prioritize using virtual sticky points. The 10 questions with the most sticky points will be selected as our guiding questions
  4. 25 minutes: The remaining time in this session can be used to clarify what we mean by these questions or perhaps argue for including another one that was voted out.

Lunch and Dinner

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Weeks before the symposium event, participants were asked to indicate their choice of menu (e.g. vegetarian or chicken) and special dietary requirements. Participants who did not indicate their choice received the vegetarian menu as the default option. Knowing that people often forget which menu they ordered, I sent a reminder email to all participants stating which menu option had been ordered for them.

Thematic Sessions

15 minutes: Collecting insights from the papers in this session

Goal: To maximize input from all participants
Method/Tool: Individual input into MeetingSphere. Already before the symposium event, participants have been asked to take note of interesting insights or ideas while reading the papers. Participants also had the opportunity to enter these insights into MeetingSphere already before the symposium event, but nobody did so.

70 minutes: Clustering of similar insights and discussion

Goal: To identify broader topics for discussion
Method/Tool: Sort similar items into folders in MeetingSphere. Try to do this fast (no need for great accuracy, the important thing is that we get an idea of what there is to talk about) and open the discussion, but if the urge to discuss things immediately is strong, the rest of the session may well consist of a mixture of clustering insights and discussing them, which is okay, but the facilitators task is to make sure that the discussion moves from topic to topic, rather than focussing on the ones that happened to be raised first. If necessary, the list of topics could be prioritized using sticky points in MeetingSphere. The facilitators should also try and relate the discussion back to the guiding questions.

Open Sessions

40 minutes: 5 presentations

Goal: The original intention with the presentations in the open sessions was to discuss those papers that did not relate to any of the main questions of the thematic sessions. I did not want to limit the entire symposium to the questions of the thematic sessions as this may have discourage some potential participants from submitting their abstracts.
Method/Tool: Pecha Kucha presentations: Since the idea of the symposium was to discuss general questions of the field rather than individual papers, the presentations of the more idiosyncratic open session papers would have to be short in order to keep the open sessions short and to not distract too much from the thematic discussions. The Pecha Kucha format seemed right for this

45 minutes: Open discussion

Goal: Having heard the presentations, the aim of the discussion is to see how they relate to the guiding questions of the symposium.
Method/Tool: During the entire session, participants can input insights and questions into MeethingSphere. During the open discussion, the facilitator tries to bring some of these items into the discussion.

Concluding discussion (day 1)

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Goal: Give participants the opportunity to articulate feedback regarding how the symposium is organized and to draw some conclusions from the discussions so far.
Method/Tool: 30 minutes Open discussion

Concluding session (day 2)

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Goal: To identify key insights from the past two days and to discuss avenues for the future and to give opportunity for feedback about the symposium,
Method/Tool: 90 minutes open discussion started by 4 “panelists” who have been asked beforehand to provide some concluding thoughts.Two oft the panelists are senior scholars and two are younger ones. The idea with their 5 minute statements is to kick off the discussion and to make sure different voices are represented.

Since I did not participate in this exercise, I would be curious to hear from others what actually happened and whether it was any good. My impression was that there wasn’t really any need for an icebreaker anymore after most of us had met at the reception and at dinner the previous evening.

Nonetheless, I’m curious whether the cards played any role at all during those 10 minutes of chatting around the table.

You are right, Christoph. In our group we did not do much with the cards but used most of the time to introduce ourselves to the ones we had not seen or spoken to yet.

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As with all things during the conference I was game to try out the cards but in retrospect what we really needed was a round of introductions, announced to the whole room. To make that manageable everyone might have been limited to 10 seconds.

I decided against it precisely for the reason that people don’t stick to 10 seconds and probably not even 30 seconds. I thought, the welcome reception and the breaks would do the job and I guess to some extent they did, but in retrospect I agree: it probably would have been worth investing an hour in a round of introduction. Probably there are some innovative methods for such large introductory rounds. You only need go find them.

I spontaneously changed my approach just before the session and decided not to present my coordinate system at the beginning. I don’t know what I was thinking when I planned to do so because these kind of “primers” obviously influence and limit the subsequent discussion. Maybe I was afraid that people wouldn’t know where to start if we just started from a blank slate whiteboard, but that turned out to be not problem at all. You can see the result here:

It is far from any systematic overview or even a mind-map, but I think it served the purpose of having everyone in the room somehow represented as a legitimate member of the emerging community of meeting researchers. So I’m pretty happy with that part of the session.

Still, I wonder whether we should perhaps have spent more time going into more detail of what these various labels mean and how they relate to each other. Indeed, I think we could have used this map to ferret out some tensions and questions that we want to keep in mind for further discussion during the symposium. What do you think?

This was useful and you moderated well, but we were doing two things simultaneously: mapping approaches and identifying problems/issues. I think you intended to focus on the first but I know how hard it is to say, that’s a great idea but let’s save it until later.

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If we were identifying issues during the mapping exercise, then I’d say it was very superficial… So you are implying it would be better to separate these things even more rigorously? (Which, in a way we did, because the subsequent session on identifying questions was completely separate from the mapping. And I thought it might have been better to mix it more…) :thinking:

Yes, given that we were going to list questions/issues later, a sustained focus on approaches might have been better, especially given the lack of proper introductions.

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A post was split to a new topic: Here is a library of facilitation methods

This was the first time we actually used MeetingSphere and I’d say that it worked well to collect a lot of questions (see this topic for a complete list). However, I was surprised to see a lot of very specific questions that were, IMHO, not directly about the state of meeting research but rather questions that would be studied in the field. Either I did not adequately express the task at hand or people were worried that if their specific research interests are not reflected in the list of questions, they will somehow loose out. Or both. Or people simply wanted different kinds of guiding questions that what I had in mind.

In any case, the list became very long and I felt unsure how we would manage to go through all questions let alone merge and refine similar ones. So I spontaneously decided to sort the questions into broader categories (folders). We managed to do that in time and since the resulting these 12 clusters of questions:

Since this list was already close enough to the envisioned 10 guiding questions, there was no need (or so I thought) to do the sticky point exercise. We already had our 10 12 guiding questions. :tada:

Or had we? - Unfortunately, we did not have time to look at each of those clusters in turn and formulate actual questions that we would then explore in each of the following sessions. Of course we don’t know how useful those questions would have been in the thematic and open sessions, but in retrospect, it seems pretty clear to me that this part of the opening session did not work as I had anticipated in terms of producing questions that would guide our discussions during the symposium.

What we did produce is an incredibly interesting list reflecting the diverse research interests in the field of meeting science (or meeting research, as many seem to prefer). Let us use this resource to explore these questions here in the forum! And by “us”, I also mean those of you who were not able to attend the symposium.

This distinction continues to puzzle me. Are the questions important to meeting research unrelated to the sociological (etc.) questions that can productively asked using meeting data? This just seemed like a chance to brainstorm about interesting meeting-related questions, and by that standard it was a very successful exercise.

Yes, you are right. There is no clear line between those two types of questions. And perhaps the distinction is not a good way of expressing what I mean.

Maybe like this: take for instance my interest in how consensus is established in meetings. I would not put that as a question of interest for everyone to discuss at the symposium. Instead, I might suggest something like “How has decision-making in meetings been studied across disciplines?” (Though I personally still wouldn’t put that as a priority question, I’m just using this as an example.)

Do you see what I mean?

Breaking bread together is an important part of meetings and conferences and from what I’ve heard, quite a number of new contacts have been made, including some concrete new collaborations.

However, we also had to struggle with a common phenomenon at pre-ordered conference dinners: people don’t remember what they ordered and end up accepting the wrong dish, leaving others without their preferred dish.

Having been at many conferences, I was aware of this and tried to tackle this by going into the hassle of sending an email confirming to every participant confirming their choices for all five meals and asking them to save or print the email so they have it handy at the restaurant. I even reminded people of that email just before we went out for lunch on the first day. Unfortunately, it didn’t help much: the restaurant that we used for lunch contacted me after our first lunch, asking me to make sure that when we come back on the second day, people know what they ordered…

So, my conclusion (and advice for anyone ordering food for their conference guests) is: you need to print that email for every participant and attach it to their conference tag. It’s extra work, I know, but it might be worth it.

But I might add that the problem might have started already before the menu choices were confirmed: when I sent out an email with a link to an online form, asking all participants to select their preferred menu for each of the five meals, a significant number never responded and therefore received the default option, which was the vegetarian dish. So one of the reasons why people didn’t remember their choice was because they never made any (and possibly didn’t even remember that tgey didn’t make a choice and therefore assumed they chose whatever they like best, and which may not always have been the default option).

So lesson two: if your default menu option is the vegetarian menu, make double sure that those who receive the default option as a default option (rather than a conscious choice) actually know what they are getting.

This is a very late reply, but I had soup with one of the makers of the cards yesterday and wanted to chime in. I didn’t really understand what we could do with the cards at the time and agree that introductions were needed. Based on what I understand now, I think the cards could have worked nicely to aid introductions had we taken a different approach. If you want to try that out again in the future, I’d be happy to share more of what I learned.

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Yes, there is incredibly much you can do with those cards. I just wanted to use them as an icebreaker at tje beginning (it was a suggestion from Tree, actually) and originally I wanted to but one in each name tag but they didn’t have the big plastic name tag holders that you hang around your neck, so I couldn’t do that. And, as I said, when the symposium started, I felt that there wasn’t really any need for the icebreaker anymore anyway, so I probably didn’t do a good job in explaining the exercise (I’m not a facilitator). But I’m still curious to hear whether the cards played any role in the “get-to-know-each-other” exercise.

Sure, I’d love to hear it!

The key has to do with how you frame the question - so I think you were right on track, but perhaps your feeling that we didn’t need an icebreaker anymore pulled you back a bit. If I remember rightly, you asked us to look at the cards and talk about what we found interesting - to pick one and share. A perhaps more guided and revealing use would be something like this.

Everyone here shares an interest in meetings, but we come from very different backgrounds and perspectives. We’re going to start with introductions using the Groupworks cards. Each table has a set of cards in front of you. Please take a moment to look at these, and select one card that you feel represents an important aspect of your work on meetings or a question you’d like to see answered over the next few days. Then, when everyone has a card, go around the table and introduce yourselves, sharing the card you selected and why you picked the card you did.

Tree mentioned that when she does this, she also likes to repeat the exercise in a closer. There, the group selects a card that best reflects something they’re taking away from their time together, and shares what inspired them to select the card they did.

The important feature is actively selecting a card that has personal meaning to the individual in relation to the meeting context. This gives everyone a safe and fairly easy way to begin talking (icebreaker) while also deepening the focus on the topic at hand.

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