By Katy DiVittorio
Being new to the library and information science profession often means starting a new job at a new organization. Understanding and navigating a new workplace is an involved process. It means adjusting to a new culture and work processes. A year ago, I left a small law school library to join a large urban academic library in another state. I knew there would be differences between the organizations, because of the change in size, location, and population served. One of the main differences I encountered was the change in methods of communication. In a smaller library there is the opportunity to achieve goals through informal conversation. Decisions can be made during a conversation between a few colleagues standing in an office doorway. I quickly discovered it takes more effort to effectively communicate and make decisions in a larger, complex organization, where there are multiple departments and stakeholders involved.
After starting my new position in a larger library, I found that I was spending a lot of time in meetings. I decided to take a closer look at how to run and contribute to concise, effective, and relevant meetings and presented my findings to my colleagues at one of our monthly Learning Cafes. Our Learning Cafes are an opportunity to share ideas and learn new skills from our colleagues, and collaborate with each other.
A meeting about meetings, I know! Despite how much we may groan about another meeting, they are often necessary. Our work involves multiple stakeholders and decision makers. We work less effectively when we work in "vacuums." Meetings allow us to solve problems, make decisions, share information, and collaborate as a group. In order to contribute to effective meetings we need to understand and identify their importance and recognize the potential ways that they get off track. Soete points out that some common complaints about meetings are that they are too long, too frequent, boring, have no purpose, no leader, are dominated by a few individuals, or have no sense of completion (1). Many of us have sat in a meeting that fits all of these criteria. Not finishing on time pulls people away from their work for longer than expected and creates conflicts with other meetings that have been scheduled. Poor preparation can lead to a disorganized meeting. This may result in including attendees who do not need to be there or failing to include attendees who do need to be there. The lack of a meeting leader provides the opportunity for the meeting to get off topic or be dominated by only a few individuals. Walking away from a meeting with no clear decisions or follow-up action items defeats the purpose of the meeting. If meetings are ineffective, you may need more meetings to accomplish the original objective. This gives employees less time to get their work done and can create frustration at all staff levels.
There are various steps you can take to try and run concise, effective, and relevant meetings. "Before you do anything else, figure out what you want to accomplish in a meeting" (Running Meetings 4). Next, identify what type of meeting you need to have. It may be a problem-solving, decision making, or informational meeting (Running Meetings 11). Make sure that a meeting is the best communication method to reach your goal. Depending on the issue, there may be a more effective communication method, such as individual conversations or e-mail. If it is determined that a meeting is the best method, then the next step is to plan and prepare. An agenda is a helpful list that helps you organize the why, what, who, when, and where of the meeting (Running Meetings 19). Be sure to distribute the agenda before the meeting so attendees know what to expect and if they have any role in the meeting. Use a tool like Outlook to assist in setting up the meeting. It can be used to check attendee availability, send and make changes to agendas, send minutes and follow up action items, and keep a record of meeting documents/information. Here are some questions you should try to answer within the agenda.
- Why are we having a meeting and what are we trying to accomplish? Identify the meeting's purpose and objectives.
- What needs to be covered and in what order? Tip: Start off with easy items, such as sharing information; then make decisions; and finally problem solve (Running Meetings 20)
- Who really needs to be at the meeting?
- When, where, and how long will the meeting be?
- What equipment is needed?
- How much time do you need for each item?
- What are the decisions that need to be reached at the meeting?
- What information, updates, and/or status reports must be communicated?
- Does anyone need to do anything before the meeting (such as prepare a status report, or prepare to speak about something at the meeting)?
- Have roles/responsibilities been communicated to attendees?
During the meeting there are actions you can take to help it run smoothly. Show up and start on time and encourage others to do the same. Showing up on time demonstrates that you respect other people's time. It is recommended to not start from the beginning when latecomers arrive, since this will only reward this behavior (Running Meetings 32). Have any technology you need set up and ready to go. There are various teleconferencing tools available online. For example, Google +, Google Talk, and Skype can be used for video conferencing, chat, file transfer, and voicemail. How a meeting begins can set the tone for the whole meeting. Micale recommends setting a positive tone including starting on time, welcoming the group, providing any necessary introductions, discussing the intended outcomes, and role expectations (8-9).
As a participant, be concise and to the point and attempt to participate in a constructive manner by staying focused on the meeting's objective. Establishing ground rules, such as agreeing to listen to each other and avoid interruptions, assists in ensuring a constructive meeting (Running Meetings 33). Try to stick to the agenda and have a chairperson and note taker. The chairperson should take the lead role in ensuring each topic starts and ends on time, and for ensuring that all necessary decisions are reached, and all required information is disseminated. The note taker will be responsible for summarizing the meeting, generating the action item list, and sending the summary/action item list to all necessary stakeholders. During the meeting, the note taker might want to take notes where the group can see (i.e. online agenda, whiteboard) in order to keep track of talking points and to make sure the group stays on topic. You can also split up these two roles, so that more people have an active role within the meeting. If it looks like a topic is going to take longer than expected, consider tabling it for next time. Prioritize what needs to be accomplished in the meeting and what can be continued at a later date.
Do not think that just because the meeting is over that your job is done. There are several post-meeting actions and analysis that needs to happen to see whether the meeting has met its objective. Have the note taker send out a summary with any decisions and action items shortly after the meeting. Make note of who is assigned to do what, and by when, and be sure to follow-up.
Presenting on effective meetings was a great conversation starter at my organization. It has allowed me and others in my department the opportunity to examine our meeting structure. People have taken turns holding different roles and responsibilities within our department meetings and have experienced the challenges that come with each one. When you are the one responsible for keeping the meeting on track it gives you a new appreciation for your role as a participant in future meetings. Every organization is different. One type of communication method may work well in one place, but not in another. Experiment and see what works best for your organization. It may help you hold more concise, effective, and relevant library meetings.
Micale, Frances A. Not Another Meeting: A Practical Guide for Facilitating Effective Meetings. Central Point, Or: Oasis Press, 1999. Print.
Running Meetings: Expert Solutions to Everyday Challenges. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Pub, 2006. Print.
Soete, George J. The Library Meeting Survival Manual. San Diego, CA: Tulane Street Publications, 2000. Print.
Katy DiVittorio email@example.com is the Serials Acquisitions Specialist at the Auraria Library in Denver, CO. The Auraria Library is the only tri-institutional academic library in the nation, serving the University of Colorado Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and Community College of Denver.