Get me out of here!

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Woman daydreaming during boring meetingImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Dreaming about that Oscar acceptance speech?

For many of us, meetings are a boring waste of time but technology could soon help make them more interesting and productive.

What do you do during a boring meeting? I canvassed some opinions on Twitter and the results were enlightening.

Some people compose haikus, others play meeting bingo, seeing how many pre-agreed words they can chuck in to the conversation.

Some secretly check out Grindr on their phones or watch catch-up TV, while others fiddle with their jewellery, doodle, or simply nod off.

What’s frankly worrying – if you’re the meeting holder, that is – surveys show that the vast majority of us confess to doing other things during meetings.

And there’s always one person – often a man who loves the sound of his own voice – who drones on and on so no-one else can get a word in edgeways.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if an artificially intelligent (AI) meeting bot could tell him to shut up?

Well, that day may not be too far away.

It is “very feasible” for an AI to recognise when one person is dominating a meeting, or when a circular discussion keeps coming back to the same point, says James Campanini from videoconferencing company, BlueJeans.

“If no new points are made after a while, the AI could suggest to wrap up,” says Cynthia Rudin, a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“While it’s a lovely idea to think everybody will be fabulous at running meetings, everybody is not,” observes Elise Keith from Lucid Meetings, a US-based meeting management platform.

An AI agent “might be able to determine whether a meeting leader is ensuring that each participant is being heard equally and fairly,” she says.

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Voicera, founded in 2016 in Silicon Valley, has created an AI assistant called Eva. As well as taking notes, Eva identifies a meeting’s action items and decisions.

“If AI can do most of the mundane and drudgery work during business meetings, that leaves more space for humans to think about strategy and vision,” argues Niki Iliadis at the London-based Big Innovation Centre, an innovation hub working in AI.

In Japan earlier this year, the prefecture of Osaka – which is responsible for nine million people -started using AI to transcribe and summarise the 450 cabinet meetings it holds annually.

The AI recognises from the context whether speakers are using the Tokyo or Osaka dialects, and who is speaking as it transcribes.

So far it has halved the time needed to produce summaries and has cut staff overtime, the prefecture says.

How about not even having to be physically present at a meeting?

One feature which shouldn’t be far away is having an AI avatar join meetings for you, when you’re running late, says Mr Campanini.

So “my AI identifiable creature joins the meeting, takes notes for me, and when I join, it stops and sends me the notes,” he says.

Quite often we find we’ve been invited to a meeting that isn’t relevant to us or is at a very inconvenient time. So tech firms are also working on AIs to help decide who should attend and when the meeting should be, Ms Keith says.

One Stockholm start-up, Mentimeter, is making it easier for meeting participants to give instant anonymous feedback about whether they find a discussion useful or tedious.

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“One way of solving sucky meetings is letting the audience take part in a simple way,” says Johnny Warstrom, the start-up’s chief executive.

Participants using the software can make open-ended responses or vote in multiple-choice quizzes.

When the presenter turns on the word cloud feature, a screen is updated as participants submit comments, and the most frequently used words appear largest on the screen.

Such anonymous live feedback has “fundamentally changed the dynamics of a presentation”, says Austin Broad from financial services firm AFH Wealth Management.

He now spends more time discussing unexpected responses than “simply confirming comprehension”, he says.

Mr Warstrom believes the software allows less assertive participants to have a say for once.

“All of a sudden everyone has a voice, someone at the back of the room as much as the person speaking loudest,” he says.

He thinks this is probably why Mentimeter, which has 20 million users and is Sweden’s fastest growing start-up, has more female than male customers.

But until such smart meeting tech becomes more widespread, it seems we’ll continue wasting time in the office.

According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, executives now spend 23 hours a week in meetings – up from under 10 in the 1960s.

And in one large company, a single weekly status meeting, and the preparations for it, took up 300,000 employee hours a year, the Harvard Business Review discovered.

Surveys show that the vast majority of us think they’re a waste of time. Even bosses have been increasingly critical.

Tesla boss Elon Musk, for example, told his employees in an April e-mail to “walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value.”

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“It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time,” he added.

And Amazon boss Jeff Bezos has banned PowerPoint – the bane of many meetings, particularly when speakers simply read out exactly what’s on the slides.

Many meetings duplicate work that’s already been done, so making meeting notes easily searchable could help, says Neale Martin from MeetingSense, a US-based meeting software firm.

Tools that can create agendas, send meeting invitations, distribute notes, and keep track of action items should improve effectiveness, he believes.

Otherwise, he says, “we have all this videoconferencing and other tech to link us, but we’re still doing things as we always did.”

A lot of this may sound like wishful thinking, particularly when you think how often basic tele- and video-conferencing tech fails to work.

But anything that helps meetings become slightly less painful must surely be welcomed.

Now, back to your doodling.

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Source: BBC

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