Meet Me in Cyberspace

ATAP meetings, convened through any local or wide area network or on the Internet, are convenient and cost-effective for government employees.

by , / May 31, 1996
"I'll meet with you any time, any place" once meant a full concession to the schedules of others -- when and where to get together. Now "any time, any place" (ATAP) meetings give participants complete control over their own schedules; they join in the group process whenever and wherever they choose.

ATAP meetings are convened by computer through any local or wide area network or the Internet. Such "computer conferencing" can take place over a period of two to six weeks, since participants contribute to the group process whenever they have a few minutes to spare, even late evenings or weekends.

In addition to convenience, ATAP meetings can result in considerable savings compared to the time and travel costs of face-to-face meetings. If a state commission can be as effective by meeting together three times a year instead of the usual four or five, everyone wins. Perhaps the face-to-face meetings are as frequent as before but shorter by a day apiece -- the savings still accumulate.

When the Federal Highway Administration, Office of Motor Carriers, decided to reallocate staff among its nine regions last year, the problem was just one of many shared by the regional directors. If every shared problem was thoroughly addressed at face-to-face meetings, the sessions could go on for weeks. A good alternative was computer conferencing.

In preparation for a scheduled face-to-face meeting in Denver, Milt Schmidt, Region I director of the Office of Motor Carriers, proposed that the group convene for a month on an ATAP basis to review the staff reallocation problem. Using a computer conferencing product called DecisionWeb in conjunction with their e-mail system, the directors jointly identified and prioritized criteria they proposed to use for redistributing staff resources.

According to Schmidt, "The computer conferencing prepared us for a more effective face-to-face meeting. We completed the brainstorming, organizing and prioritizing in advance and reduced the Denver meeting by a full day. For the 10 participants, we saved $1,000 in per diem costs, but the big savings was in the full day of office time for each regional director."

ATAP meetings are different from other electronic forums such as bulletin boards, newsgroups, listservs and chat groups. An ATAP meeting gathers individuals together who share responsibility for a common task, who need to focus on an explicit problem, who must be successful in getting useful results from their collaboration. In short, ATAP meetings are convened to get work done with a broader base of effort.

As cutbacks reduce the amount of government money available for travel, many state agencies find that problem- solving is again becoming more centralized. Conferences that once brought together a variety of stakeholders and constituencies to share concerns and explore alternatives are far less frequently funded. Participation in government policy making is curtailed; decisions are made with less input.

Computer conferencing is an inexpensive means to widen participation when face-to-face meetings are prohibitive in cost. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for example, recently organized an ATAP meeting to review recovery operations following one particularly severe storm.

Using their own e-mail system and DecisionWeb, a nationwide group of over 50 participants was quickly convened. Although none of the participants had prior computer conferencing experience, nearly 200 proposals were shared, sorted, and prioritized during a six-week period. To bring a group of this size together from around the country, travel costs alone would have been in excess of $15,000.

"Although cost savings is a principal argument for using this process," said Nancy Meneely of FEMA's Response and Recovery Standards and Evaluation Staff Office, "an equally compelling benefit is its capability to discriminate issues seen as critical by participants representing a variety of functions, organizational levels and points of view. We were able to see very quickly which issues were of universal concern and, therefore, needed to be attended to on a priority basis."

Computer conferencing systems may have some advantages over face-to-face sessions for certain types of group work, as well. When the University at Albany's Center for Technology in Government reported on its Groupware Testbed Project in 1995, Sharon Dawes, the director, highlighted the successful use of computer conferencing for generating new ideas within the organization.

"By brainstorming individually in a computer conference, we could devote our subsequent face-to-face discussion to the more difficult design tasks required for completing our comprehensive strategic plan," Dawes said. "A major advantage of DecisionWeb is that it is untiring in getting more proposals out on the table. If we had done that brainstorming as a group, we would all have been exhausted before even half of the ideas were articulated."

Indeed, advocates of ATAP meetings argue that they generate more ideas than might be produced in a typical roundtable discussion. Laboratory research recently reported by Joseph Valacich and others (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 57-3, 1994) certainly supports such productivity claims.

Part of the reason for improved brainstorming in computer conferencing is the additional time for good ideas to lead to even better ideas, perhaps entirely new ways of thinking about a problem or its solution. Participants can review the contributions of others at their own pace and join in the meeting in their own creative way. Everyone seems to have something important to add to the mix.

As Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff point out in The Network Nation (MIT Press, 1993), computer conferencing systems have been around for decades. It is only in the 1990s, however, that computer networks have developed to the point that they can be used widely and easily for convening ATAP meetings.

Unlike videoconferencing systems, computer conferencing has proven relatively easy to initiate. The software necessary to support the meeting is compact enough to fit on a single disk. Often the software is provided in the form of an e-mail attachment at the time the conference agenda is first distributed to the participants. The files require only a small amount of space on a PC.

First-time participants in ATAP meetings report that they can join in the sessions without difficulty, as long as they have the office capacity to send and receive files through their local or wide area network. DecisionWeb conferences, in particular, are unique because they are facilitated, providing immediate support for any individual who may be having difficulty joining the meeting.

In yesterday's computing environment, computer conferencing software had to be prepared to span a variety of operating systems, wide and local area networks, and e-mail products. As government agencies increasingly connect to the World Wide Web, however, the standardization of communication tools it provides will greatly improve the opportunities to convene ATAP meetings.

By the end of the next decade, computer conferencing may be viewed as only one of the first steps toward achieving full connectivity between geographically dispersed offices. Certainly there will be many times, perhaps most times, when teams, committees, and task forces will need to work together at the same time and, if not in the same room, on the same videoscreen.

Nevertheless, both now and in the foreseeable future, at those times when group members' schedules do not converge, the ATAP meeting is a practical option for moving forward on a pressing problem. As Dawes noted, "Groupware technology is now out of the testbed; it is an increasingly significant facet of day-to-day administrative routine."

John Rohrbaugh is the professor of Public Affairs and Policy for the University of Albany, 518/442-3850, . Sandy Schuman is president of Executive Decision Services, .