Synchronous Web Meetings


It amazes me how much the online interaction world has moved to embrace synchronous interaction. And not just in the same time zone. It is becoming common for me to have meetings at 6am or 9pm with colleagues spread across the world. We’re using VOIP, chats and more web meeting tools.

In exploring design options for synchronous meetings, I have been thinking about a gradient of modalities and technologies. For one shot interactions where you cannot expect a lot of investment in learning tools or processes, the conference call (land line and/or VOIP) is still the dominant choice, but I try to include SOMETHING visual in the mix. It could be a document or slide deck sent in advance via email, or browsing a shared webpage. Skype’s latest, version 3.0, has a plug in for a shared white board. It can only serve 2 people, but it allows another modality. Likewise, they have a co-browsing tool (which I’ve not explored yet) which could be a really great addition.

The reason to have something beyond the voice is two fold: one is to increase our engagement and participation, particularly for those of us who are not great in an aural-only mode. With a visual, I’m less apt to start doing my email or staring out the window. For the same reason, I love my cordless phone because I find I listen to long phone meetings better when I can walk around and move away from my computer. It does something to my thinking. I’m still hard wired for VOIP calls and, despite the price, I am tempted to get a bluetooth headset for the computer.

The second reason is other tools can support the process of the meeting or gathering. Using a chat room to collectively take notes, or a wiki to evolve the agenda and take notes during a meeting. Co-editing WHILE discussing a document. Queing up questions in a larger phone meeting via chat so that a) you know you are on deck to speak and b) people have a chance to be heard, especially if they are less inclined to jump in to a conversation.

When you get to the place where you are doing larger meetings (over 8 or so), or are doing ongoing live meeting practices, it starts making sense to consider more sophisticated tools and pratices. This is where things like web meeting tools, co-browsing, and such can be useful.
What I notice about web meeting tools is that most of us don’t know how to make the most of them. We may learn how to use all the tools and features, but we haven’t had exposure to good facilitation practices. We try and duplicate offlinen experiences (be they useful or not) and not really take advantage of the medium.

People like Jennifer Hoffman and Jonathan Finkelstein are seasoned synchronous facilitators who have written about the practice. I’ve been reading Jonathan’s latest, “Learning in Real Time” and it is full of great advice, particularly in a learning setting. Jonathan covers the why’s what’s and how’s. His technical review of web meeting features is excellent.

In the “why’s” he talks about the “threshold to go live.” In other words, know WHY you are going live. There is still a heck of a lot of useful applications for asynchronous online interaction.

But let’s get to the facilitation bit (Chapter 5) where Jonathan dives into practices. I love his line “inflate a bubble of concentration.” In other words, when we facilitate synchronously we not only have to manage the software, the domain of the conversation, but we also are working to legitimately request and get the attention of participants who, for the most part, we cannot see. We have to do this across a diversity of styles and skills. It is truly a “ringmaster” job.

There are some great examples in the book, and if you are facilitating online get the book. What I notice is that Jonathan writes about something I learned from my colleague, Fernanda Ibarra. It is the masterful use of a shared white board to move people from being consumers of a meeting to being active participants. Fernanda showed me how she prepared a whiteboard screen with clipart of a circle of chairs. As people entered the web meeting space, she invited them to write their names under a chair. This helped orient them to and practie with the tool, created a sense of “group” and gave a visual focus as people entered the “room.” It was brilliant. I’ve riffed on that idea and found it very useful. We’ve done After Action Reviews with the white board taking the place of a flip chart used F2F. We’ve even had virtual parties. This brings together voice, text, and images.

Here are some suggestions readers of my blog have offered on synchronous online facilitation:

Maarten Boers said...
Indeed Nancy I do very much agree with you that synchronous online meetings can become much better en effective when you have more possibilities than speaking and hearing.

Recently I am running some tests with the "Interwise connect" tool ( and ). I learned about it in an E-moderation course last year (it will be held another time this year: ).

The tests I am doing consist in giving some explanation and doing some experiments with colleagues form my organisation and/or de Dutch E-collaboration group. Most times participants are very enthusiastic about the possibilities and features, and actually some colleagues are using the tool for communication "across the oceans". And as you state the quality of the facilitation of such meetings or events are essential.

Working together on a document is possible with this tool if you combine it with for example Google docs and the application sharing possibility. But I could imagine that is also possible with a combined use of Skype/VOIP and Google docs.

But about your questions:
The top three skills for me would be 1) knowing the use of the tool in all its details; 2) having lots of patience to explain how things work and especially if technical communication fails; 3) the "normal" skills you need for a F2F facilitation of a meeting/event.

The top three practices are somewhat more difficult to name, because they depend very much on what the meeting or event is about. But I would say: 1) Make sure that all participants have at least a basic knowledge and skills to use the tools – if necessary plan a trial meeting before the real event; 2) planning and sharing the well formulated objectives of the event; 3) Using the tool in an effective way, i.e. if you have the possibility to do something like you described as Fernanda Ibarra did, do it and adjust the way to the (type of) participants and the objective of the event.

By the way I am using a Bluetooth headset and I surely can recommend you that gadget!

Warm regards,

Maarten Boers
Bill Harris said...
Nancy, good topic, and good ideas. I like the idea of the virtual seating chart.

I've been doing large synchronous meetings for about 7 years now. Here are a few key lessons I've learned.

+ Stay unflappable. Problems arise; as facilitator or moderator, my job is to make the other people as comfortable as I can, and that means that "the stress stops here."

+ Foster engagement. Anything I can do (well, almost anything) to help people get engaged with the work is a good idea.

+ It's not the tool. Sure, some venues and tools are better than others, and some make life much easier than others, but, with practice and skill, you can use most any tool successfully. The essence of successful work here, as anywhere, is to work under the existing constraints (there are always constraints) and make it as great as it can be.

For small, personal synchronous meetings (AKA phone calls), I find I'm increasingly using a synchronous tool (e.g., WebHuddle, VNC, ...) to share a Google Doc. I'll often use Bernie DeKoven's Technography idea, turning the Google Doc into a (shared?) flipchart. At the end of the meeting, I can share the document with the other person, and we've moved (perhaps) from synchronous to asynchronous.
Jenny Ambrozek said...
Nancy, Intriguing topic. You do have an uncanny ability to push one's thinking! Can't do justice to your question here but:
i. Agree facility with the tools is important so the technology is as invisible as possible in the meeting.
ii. Listening comes to mind. In the absence of F2F visual cues paying close attention to nuances of speech and what is being said.
iii. Being an artist in asking questions to ensure understanding of what s being presented and to fuel the dialogue around it.
As a context I've used Interwise to teach how to teach online, WebEx and a miscellaneous collection of free online conferencing tools.
Oldude59 said...
My situation is a little different than those described. I'm an entrepreneur and in a past life a community organizer and facilitator. My latest project is to bring online counseling to people that suffer addictions. The primary reason I'm using this method is because it lowers cost and opens up to a widely distributed network of therapist. The other feature I think this platform offers is a level of privacy that F2F can not.

I have not learned enough about online engagement to quote a list as requested, but I will simply say thank you for the discussion and I'll come back often.

Moira said...
I've been a synchronous facilitator for some time now and in addition to the great comments already posted, I would add that you have to be a good multitasker and above all like the buzz and be able to deal with the unexpected chaos which can occur in real-time sessions, whilst still appearing totally zen for the participants.

Normally, I use the fully featured virtual rooms but also use simpler and lighter solutions depending upon the different needs.

I had a very pleasant experience when invited to present recently. I expected the normal virtual room and instead was invited to a skypecast and a wiki. This was ideal for the size and geographical dispersion of the audience and I could add my input to the collaborative wiki before the presentation and things were added during the session.

  1. # Allison Milleron 25 Mar 2010
Moving to online meetings can be very scary for people new to this type of environment so my tip is make your participants feel as comfortable as possible ie
- send clear and step by step instructions on how they can log on
  • - offer to hold ‘practice sessions’ or encourage people to go into the room themselves
  • - repeat and repeat the simple things like: which button to press to speak
  • - encourage people to participate to their comfort zoneie via talking, text chat, whiteboard, emoticons etc
  • - do regular checks that everyone can see and hear what’s going on
  • - ask lots of questions to encourage interaction
and of course (like in all of your wonderful online sessions Nancy) HAVE FUN!!
  1. # Leilani Henryon 25 Mar 2010
I like to find ways to check in.
  • -If people say or type in their name, include state or city or weather!
  • -What’s a feeling you have right now, as our meeting starts? One word like EXCITED!
  • -Let’s take one breath together, so we are all present with one another on the call.
Make sure you know who’s on the phone vs. who’s online and acknowledge both. If some people are online chatting and other’s can’t see, read some of the highlights from time to time to the phone only participants.
I model asking questions. So many times people just state their view. Encourage participants to ask questions of each other and about the content.
    1. # Nancy Whiteon 25 Mar 2010

Allison and Leilani, thanks for getting things started. Allison, your first one reminds me of a key base principle about setting reasonable expectations! All the bits you talk about help REACH those expectations!
Leilani, your check ins remind me of my little “virtual chair circle.” (Funny, I first blogged about it in 2007 and then again here:
I realized I have other blog posts on this I should have cross referenced: (oh, dear, some of the archive pages aren’t loading. I’ll have to add the others!)

Synchronous Meeting Resources

Asynchronous Web Meetings