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Outlining Brings Meeting to Order

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March 29, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bernie DeKoven practices "technography," a technique he developed 15 years ago using computers to facilitate business meetings.

Back then, DeKoven or one of his associates would sit at a PC and use an outlining program to take notes during a meeting. The technographer's computer would be connected to a large screen so everyone in the room could see what was being typed.

People in the meeting, DeKoven said, would pay more attention to what was being discussed because they could see concepts and comments displayed on the screen while they were talking. Participants could "see themselves being heard."

Back then, DeKoven would use a specialized outlining program because it enabled the person taking notes to easily rearrange what was being said. Today, the outlining feature built into Microsoft Word does the trick.

I've sat through a number of meetings where technography was being used and have come to appreciate the technique. Ideally, the person who is taking the notes is not a participant. His or her only job should be as a facilitator who helps codify each person's thoughts on the screen. When the meeting is over, everyone gets a copy of the document, which is the collective wisdom of the group.

Although the mechanics of DeKoven's methodology haven't changed much over the years, the Internet now makes it possible for members of the group or the technographer to be in remote locations.

DeKoven demonstrated the process by setting up a virtual meeting. He was in his office in Redondo Beach and I was in my home office in Palo Alto 400 miles to the north. A colleague participated from his office in San Francisco.

During our telephone meeting DeKoven was taking notes using Microsoft Word. Everything he typed appeared on my screen. To make this work, the three of us were on the PlaceWare Web Conferencing Web site (http://www.placeware.com). PlaceWare, like WebEx, Centra and HelpMeeting.Com, makes it possible for two or more people to view the same computer screen via the Internet even if they're a world apart.

PlaceWare lets up to five users participate in a meeting for free. After that there are charges. Unlike some of the other Web conferencing services, there is no software to download.

In this case, DeKoven had complete control over the mouse and keyboard. The rest of us could see what was being typed and we could communicate with each other via a chat window that's built into PlaceWare and, of course, could chat on the phone. We could have used the Internet to place the phone call (there are lots of services that let you set up free conference calls over the Net), but the phone is a lot more reliable and has much better sound quality.

There are ways to give more than one person control over the application being used to record the meeting, but DeKoven doesn't think that's a good idea. "The people participating in the meeting should be concentrating on the subject matter, not the technology," he said. "Besides, it gets rather messy when more than one person at a time tries to move the mouse around the screen."

I know what he means. It can be confusing any time you have two or more people typing, drawing or using the mouse on the same screen. If you've ever used AOL Instant Messenger or any other tool to participate in an online chat, you've probably experienced the confusion that arises when more than one person tries to "talk" at the same time. An online conversation, even with as few as two people, can quickly become convoluted and confusing. With DeKoven's techniques, the person taking the notes focuses on keeping an orderly record of the discussion, which--as he has demonstrated to me--can also result in a more orderly discussion.

At first it's disconcerting to see your words summarized on the screen, but after a while you begin to appreciate the power in having an instant record of what is being discussed. I find it particularly useful in brainstorming sessions because ideas that might otherwise be lost or forgotten are up there for all to see, and after the meeting become part of the permanent record. Unlike typical meeting notes, participants can review the "minutes" in real time. If you said something that you considered important, you don't have to wait until the notes are distributed to make sure it was recorded.

DeKoven offers technography training and consulting for $125 an hour and operates a useful Web site (http://www.coworking.com) with free tips on technography and other techniques for enhancing group meetings.

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Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard at 2:10 p.m. weekdays on the KNX (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at larry.magid@latimes.com. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com.

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