Meeting Technologies

By Tom Peters |

How many meetings do you think occur every weekday in the United States involving staff members from libraries and library-related organizations? For our purposes, let’s define a meeting as a real-time interaction between three or more people for a stated purpose. Two people have a conversation; three or more people have a meeting. I realize that excludes two-person meetings like annual performance meetings and that some library-related meetings occur on weekends but the definition above will keep things in this context neat, clean and clear.

According to ALA calculations there are roughly 123,000 libraries in the U.S. Many of those are one-person libraries, so we can estimate that on each working day there are approximately 100,000 meetings involving librarians and library staff. Of course, at large libraries the number of daily meetings will be high. With approximately 250 workdays in a year, that yields an annual estimate of 25 million library-related meetings in the U.S. alone.

We could call a meeting to discuss whether or not that estimate is too high or too low, but all we need is a ballpark figure. Whatever the actual number of meetings, it is pretty safe to assume it is a very large one. Many librarians and library staff members spend a fair chunk of their average workday in meetings, and I imagine that isn’t news to most TechSource readers. 

Let’s consider all these library-related meetings a market – the Library Meeting Market (LMM). My question is: What percentage of the market does each LMM technology currently have, and what are the trends? Huh!? Meeting technology? What the heck am I talking about? 

Every type of meeting relies on some fundamental technologies. In-person meetings rely on the technologies of modern architecture, HVAC systems, tables, chairs, whiteboards, even flipcharts. Telephone conference calls rely on the technologies supporting our telephone systems. Webconferencing meetings rely on the technologies that support the Web. Meetings in virtual worlds add another layer of technologies, and meetings held via videoconferencing systems rely on that suite of technologies.

Of those five basic types of meeting “venues”, how much market share does each have, and what are the trends? My hunch is that in-person meetings have the lion’s share of the LMM market, with telephone conference calls in second. Webconferencing, videoconferencing, and virtual world meetings scramble for the crumbs. The trend may be to have the three “also rans” pick up market share at the expense of in-person and teleconference meetings, but it is a slow process. 

Several years ago I attended an in-person meeting with about twenty academic librarians and teaching faculty members. We were trying to decide whether to purchase something, I don’t remember what. It wasn’t expensive, but it touched an institutional nerve. The discussion became somewhat hot and heavy, as academic discussions are wont to do. Many people felt this was an important decision for the university library.

Because this was a public university where salaries are part of the public record, the debate dragged on. I pulled out my PDA and began calculating the cost of this debate just in terms of the salaries of the people involved. I didn’t try to factor in benefits, the amortized cost of the meeting space, electricity, heat or so many other expenses that were produced in the process of this discussion. Remember, neat and clean.

After a while it became clear to me that the cost of the debate was about equal to the cost of the potential purchase being debated. Most meetings probably are more costly than we like to think. Yet I’ve never seen a library budget with “meetings” as a line item. Despite their ubiquity, meetings are a largely hidden and unexamined cost to libraries.

When it comes to choosing between the five basic technologies for holding a meeting, most librarians don’t give the decision much thought, especially when it comes to which technology will be most cost-effective. One of the facts of the four not-in-person meeting options is that it is easy to multi-task while attending these meetings. Mute your audio input to that conference call, switch your telephone set to speaker phone, and munch on a sandwich and write a blog post while you listen to the meeting conversation. Yikes, I’ve ratted myself out. It is possible to multi-task during an in-person meeting, but that may annoy the other attendees. 

The funny thing is that webconferencing meetings and virtual world meetings may be the least expensive, on average, to conduct (once you invested in the infrastructure) yet they seem to have only a tiny sliver of the LMM. The in-person meeting and the telephone conference call are entrenched. The social, nay, tribal aspects of library-related meetings still trump the cost factors and multifaceted technological options currently available to meeting planners. The next time I hear librarians complaining about the woeful state of the library’s budget, I’m going to ask them if they have seriously examined the costs of meetings and all the new meeting technologies options available to them.