[Ed. Note: Don Wedd, of the Center for Economic Progress -- and NTEN Member -- submitted the following case study on his own organization's meeting strategy, as part of NTEN Member Appreciation Month. Learn more about how you can submit to the next issue of NTEN Connect.]
The National Community Tax Coalition (NCTC), which leads the movement connecting working families with tax credits and economic opportunities, is a national coalition of 600 plus organizations providing free tax preparation for low-income families. The NCTC is a project of the Chicago-based Center for Economic Progress.
We have a Steering Committee of 25 people, dispersed nationally, that meets by phone monthly. One of the group wanted to improve our meeting process, so he suggested:
1. Any issue to come before the Steering Committee should be first shared via e-mail.
2. Committee members then react electronically in a forum that compiles all comments (newsgroup, chat room, listserv?).
3. Based on that discussion, the appropriate work group chair prepares and distributes a summary of the key decision-making points and assigns presenters to represent each viewpoint.
4. The conference call uses a "speak only when spoken to" approach, in which the facilitator calls upon the assigned presenters.
5. Reaction is provided online simultaneously through e-mail, texting, or surveying; a commenter’s list is prepared (the equivalent of making a list of people holding up their hands in an in-person meeting) and called upon; formal votes are taken by either phone roll call or online survey tool.
My job was to find tools to support this process. Needless to say, I didn’t find any one toolkit, but have experimented with cobbling together several tools.
We have a SharePoint server that can be used as an extranet. We had already planned to set it up to provide file storage (agendas, minutes, meeting materials) for the Steering Committee. It comes with forums allowing for threaded discussions, as well as a polling feature. We also have a Yahoo Group for email communications amongst the members of the Steering Committee.
This is the flow we've come up with, slightly modified from the original request:
1. Share issues via email using the Yahoo Group. Use email to link to relevant documents and materials stored on the extranet.
2. Members visit the extranet, where they react electronically in a threaded discussion.
3. Chair summarizes the key decision-making points and includes them in the meeting agenda, which is stored on the extranet. Members are advised via email when the agenda and materials are available.
4. We meet by conference call. The chair controls the flow of the meeting rather than allowing people to interject randomly.
5. During the conference call, members sit in front of computers and utilize a web-based "meeting space" which has an embedded chat tool (Zoho Chat) and presentation tool (Zoho Show). The chat is used for people to "raise their hand" (notify chair that they want to comment) and the presentation tool allows everyone to view any documents referred to during the meeting.
The "meeting space" links to a wiki (Zoho Wiki) where a staff member can take notes, and where the exact language of any proposals is entered, so everyone can see exactly what is proposed or being voted upon. Votes are either taken by voice, or after the meeting by electronic poll.
Of course, our plan raises a number of questions: Will people be too distracted by the technology to follow the meeting? Will they be able to jump from tab to tab during the meeting – from meeting space to wiki to document storage? How will we allow people to "raise their hand" if they are not in front of a computer to use the chat functionality (if they're using a cell phone while traveling, for example)? How will they handle the discipline of having to raise their hand to comment?
We will experiment and see. If anyone knows of better solutions, or can tweak this one, let me know. Don Wedd, dwedd at centerforprogress.org