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Nightmare No. 11: The Virtual Meeting

Posted Jun 7, 2012, by Roy Speed

Email Nightmare No. 11

The Virtual Meeting is our handle for a particular kind of email exchange: a group of employees cc'ing one another on a lengthy discussion of a sensitive topic.

The problem with this kind of exchange in email is threefold:

  • Participants let their hair down. They often behave as though they're in a conference call or seated in a conference room -- whereas in reality they're in email; they're writing. They're creating records of every careless remark, every half-baked thought that occurs to anyone in the group.
  • It produces an abundance of material. The Virtual Meeting generates countless versions, any one of which could be forwarded outside the firewall with a slip of the mouse.
  • It can't be undone. Virtual Meetings are basically ineradicable, thanks to both the many copies generated and the multiple locations of those copies.

What's to be done?
The biggest mistake we could make would be to simply scold employees, because they know in their bones that underlying the Virtual Meeting is a real business imperative: the need for employees in different locations (and even time zones) to get together in some fashion to discuss real business issues. They turn to the Virtual Meeting, i.e., email, because getting together in real time is often impossible and never easy.

Unfortunately, technology seems unlikely to produce alternatives that employees will happily embrace -- at least not anytime soon. For several years now, advocates of Enterprise 2.0 have been heralding the arrival of "social business," i.e., social media applications adapted for use inside company firewalls, to facilitate sharing of knowledge and information. Examples would include internal wikis and blogs. For the moment, such technologies have not been widely adopted, and it remains to be seen whether employees will desert the familiar (email) for the unfamiliar (e.g., a wiki). People with real experience in such matters say that email is here to stay. (See also here.) -- For the foreseeable future, we're saddled with the Virtual Meeting.

So if we can't simply scold employees, what should be our approach? -- What are employees to do? What can we recommend?

A critical distinction

Legal and compliance leaders must distinguish two discrete circumstances -- and in all training on such matters, emphasize this distinction:

  • Sensitive topics. The key guidance here: Email is simply not appropriate for sensitive discussions. Take the discussion to a more appropriate medium. -- In other words, whenever employees find themselves in an email discussion that strays into sensitive areas, they must move the discussion to a more appropriate medium (like a conference call). When providing guidance on this situation, make certain they understand the aim, which is not to shut down discussion, but simply to move it to a medium that doesn't require us to create business records prematurely, i.e., on topics we're still exploring.
  • Non-sensitive topics. The key guidance: Manage the discussion. Keep it focused. Resolve the issue as efficiently as possible. -- Your guidance here will serve two aims: first, to prevent the discussion straying into sensitive areas; second, to aid productivity. The issue is speed: how rapidly the group progresses toward a solution.

At our Email Excellence site, we have posted a Manager's Guide to Virtual Meetings. Here the focus is on productive discussion, but have a look -- our recommendations can go a long way to contain the risk as well.


Roy Speed

Our Good Documents blog tackles the challenge of preventing bad documents: emails or other documents so ill-conceived or poorly written that, in a legal or regulatory situation, they would have to be "explained." — Please email me with any questions or issues you'd like to see addressed here.



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