French Company’s Virtual Victory—Six Cities Without a Hitch!

Imagine a three channel, six city, tele-computer-graphics meeting with over 40 people involved and lasting four hours. I can and actually helped facilitate one recently when a consumer goods company from France decided to review its plans for talent management in Asia with its teams in Tokyo, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Singapore and San Francisco in a virtual rather than face to face setting. Here’s a picture of our video link (I was represented only by my graphics).

French Company's Virtual Victory—Six Cities Without a Hitch!


The Grove teamed up with our partners in electronic meetings, CoVision, to support Meryem Le Saget, our Parisian associate. The company was her client. By chance I had been able to attend an initial visioning session in Singapore last February, and we created a visualization of the talent management project. The company’s intent is to grow its Asian talent to support its rapidly expanding business there.

Individual country teams had developed action oriented roadmaps since the visioning session, and our virtual meeting was to review these plans with Danone general managers and align with the BoLe vision. The business details are confidential, of course. The visionary HR manager who is supporting this effort was glad to have The Grove share about the process. We all learned a great deal.

Our Infrastructure

One of the first things we learned is that creating a reliable infrastructure is not only an imperative but also a lot of work. In F2F meetings, rooms, chairs, table, and people talking are all understood elements. The challenge is setting purpose, building trust, understanding objectives, etc. The same concerns attend virtual meetings, but there aren’t the rooms and chairs. You have to create them with technology.

What we “built” was a platform with three channels. The primary channel was a video/audio connect behind the company firewall that we all tuned into with a special VPN access program we had to download. The internal IS folks really showed off connecting all the cities and sustaining a video network that really worked. The screens in each location would show all the sites, and magnify the ones who were talking.

A second channel was the CoVision Council software, available to small groups of three in each meeting room via PCs connected to the Internet. On this platform Josh Kaufman and Lenny Lind, the CoVision staff on the project, could push questions to the participants, who would then have small group discussions and post answers. All the answers were readable by anyone with a computer, and were focused on by a “theme team” of general managers and Meryem and Cecile. The key leaders in the company were then asked to respond to key themes raised by the participants.

A third channel carried my visualization work in San Francisco on a WebEx conference in which I had the “presenter” rights turned on, allowing me to show whatever was on my screen. This is what people in Singapore saw—a summary slide projected from the WebEx meeting of my Wacom Cintiq tablet drawing, done in Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro software (my preferred recording medium). You can also see the CoVision computers in the foreground.

SIngapore Main room - French Company's Virtual Victory—Six Cities Without a Hitch!


Each meeting room had one screen showing the video, and another showing either my recording, or whatever slides presenters needed to use—toggling back and forth. They also had a Grove Storymap of the talent management Vision hanging up as a mural.

Our technical team had three teleconferences and a long, 4-hour test run making sure everything was working. During that I drew this little sketch of my setup in San Francisco, and a portrait of Josh Kaufman, who directed the meeting from Singapore, and Jeffrey Zhang, head of the technical crew in Singapore. He and his IS folks in each city were amazing, and very proud of what they accomplished—for everything worked beautifully. Here is all the gear we needed just for our San Francisco end of things.

DS Setup - French Company's Virtual Victory—Six Cities Without a Hitch!


Facilitation Learning

Once an infrastructure is “built,” then the actual process needs to be directed and facilitated. Josh Kaufman of CoVision was that lead, with Meryem close by. CoVision has supported an incredibly wide range of very important meetings with its Council tools. The Grove has worked with them at Nike, RE-AMP, and the California ISO. CoVision works regularly with America Speaks’ thousand person meetings, including one with 6,000 people considering designs for the World Trade Center. They have worked at Davos and with the Clinton Global Initiative. Meryem is working with them regularly in France.

Some Take-aways from This Meeting

• You need experienced facilitation. I got to see the fruits of CoVision’s experience in Josh’s cool handling of all the variables in this meeting. To keep the meeting focused, we had a facilitator in each of the cities who were all part of the test meeting. Their job was to brief the general managers who attended, make sure people were having the small breakouts and knew how to post answers to questions, and provide chat feedback and questions to Josh about anything that needed attention from the central hub. I personally wouldn’t have suggesting that my kind of tablet recording be part of the mix if I also hadn’t had a lot of experience. None of us flap in the pinch.

• A detailed agenda and timing discipline makes it possible. We worked on dozens of version of the agenda and key questions that would be asked in Council, using e-mail and teleconferences to tune things. During the meeting Cecile reinforced over and over—”Keep it short and snappy.” A big part of the success of the meeting was keeping to the timing and keeping the comments and presenters to their agreed upon limits. Each of the presenters were well rehearsed in addition. This allowed the improvised responses to have enough time and brought the meeting to life.

• A back channel is essential. We had a fourth channel open on Skype for the facilitators, Josh, Lenny, Meryem and I to communicate. It turned out to be essential in making adjustments on the back and forth toggling between slides and my recording, and to calibrate how the tablet images showed up on the different screens in the different cities.

• Each channel needs a dedicated viewing computer.
 As someone who was reflecting the entire process with graphic recording, I needed to track the entire event and know where we were and what was happening on each channel. The different programs don’t allow multiple screens to be open in a convenient way (a factor in “application sharing” on a web conference program like WebEx), so I had one computer showing the videos and providing me with audio on a headset. Another computer showed what people were seeing on the screen that projected my work and the slides. I used my computer for the tablet and the back channel, but if doing it again would have a fourth computer with just the Skpe.

• IT support is essential. Eddie Palmer, The Grove’s IT coordinator, was on hand for both the test and the meeting. Tiny little things can throw a virtual meeting off track, like having the audio settings incorrect, or experiencing disconnects. Because I was on a Mac and the video needed to be on a PC we were working cross platform. I know a fair bit about computers, but can’t navigate a PC and do graphic recording at the same time. I think all the sites were very grateful for their IT people.

• Audio is king. The Grove discovered during our work on the Groupware Users Project with The Institute for the Future in 1990s that audio is the bottom line for virtual work. If people can’t hear clearly, nothing else works very well. Fortunately our connection was and stayed strong.

• Set up files in advance. None of the programs for recording on tablet computers has been designed by graphic recorders, and as a result the way they handle access and filing is far from intuitive, and doesn’t work in real time unless you set up the files in advance. I create headings in advance, number all the pages and have them ready in a file to use with Sketchbook Pro. If I want to take notes in regard to any slides, I need to pull those into a TIFF format in the right sequence with my blank recording pages in advance.

• A good tablet and software makes all the difference. It is possible to take graphic notes on the whiteboards that most computer conference software provide, but it is very crude, doesn’t word-wrap or allow for much tool control and isn’t really very satisfactory. The same is true recording on PowerPoint. These tools are primarily good for checking, circling, or making very rudimentary notes. If you do this work much invest in a good tablet. The Wacoms are the industry standard.

• Breaks are important. We took a good break about halfway through, and a half dozen small group breakout sessions that were in essence breaks. This made the four-hour meeting possible.

• Multi-tasking is the virus in virtual work. We were quite strict about multi-tasking in this meeting, but in my experience it is very hard to control and so tempting when things lag. Having split attention really affects any meeting, and is something that people who do serious virtual work fight continuously. Craig Neal, who teaches the Art of Convening on teleconferences, has found that with strict adherence to being present, very deep work can happen virtually. Audio is actually quite intimate when people are on headphones and mikes. But getting all this established and people committed is a process in and of itself.

• The facilitation team needs to be a real team. Josh, Lenny, Meryem and I all know each other and have worked together many times. When you combine three consulting firms like this having them all work well together is a must. We were able to focus completely on the task and knew where each of the others would be focused during the process.

• Pioneering can be exciting. One of my biggest take-aways from the meeting was how excited all the teams were by simply having the courage to meet in this fashion and break entirely new ground for the company (and in facilitation in my experience). In this company most of the general managers are French, as one might expect, and changing that in Asia is what the talent management project is all about. By conducting this meeting in this fashion, the entire Asian staff had a chance to shine as facilitators and IS specialists supporting the meeting. It ended up being an important development experience all the way around. So too, the French managers learned a lot. They had to move out into new territory and explain their divisional strategies and plans in a new medium, and it sharpened their focus.

The HR leader received a lot of great feedback after the meeting. While the cost savings of avoiding an expensive face-to-face meeting were real, the team-building benefits in each country were probably more valuable.

  • Avatar
    Charles Knickerbocker
    November 11, 2010 Reply

    Very fine writeup. Your headline caught my attention and your opening line caused my jaw to drop. As someone who provides process and facilitation to online groups my immediate thought reading it was, “No way!”.
    I’ll do a search of your blog to look for more descriptions on file setup. And now I have justification to go ahead and get a Wacom, etc. that I’ve been wanting.
    thanks again

  • Avatar
    Wendy Wong
    July 27, 2010 Reply

    Congrats David – sounds like a wonderful project and experience! Thanks very much for generously sharing the process and learning points as well 🙂

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