Bad Hoc

featured-crewcallSometimes, in my role as the general manager of a small AV company dealing with large clients, and being part of planning both their permanent installations and their events, I stand at a crossroads that can give me some perspective. Or get me hit by a car. The key for me, and for all of us, is to look around and understand that we are standing in that crossroads.

I think I’m in one now.

If you pay attention to the industry press, and to your clients, you will discover that there is a rift developing between their normal meetings, held in their own meeting spaces, and their events. And if 30 years in the business have taught me anything, it’s that these differences eventually must be worked out. The big difference is that their internal meetings become more and more free-form, more and more an event of collaboration than of information distribution, and that the agendas are more and more driven by the participants. On top of that, these agendas become less detailed and less meaningful as meetings become more events that are self driven between peers. On top of that, these agendas and the meeting materials themselves become more driven by contribution, in the style of each contributor — meaning that they come in the form of various forms of social media, Google docs, office online, etc. And often in order to look at these materials you have to go to various sites, meaning that they are never truly combined and never truly coherent.

I’m all for this. In installations, I am a big proponent of the bring your own device trend. I love it when a conference room is flexible enough to let everyone work in their own way. I love the trend towards huddle spaces, equipped for small meetings to break out at any time, using whatever materials the attendees want, with no preparation. If I watch what my clients are doing, their spaces are becoming less meeting spaces and more ad hoc collaboration spaces all the time.

Is that a car I hear bearing down on me in the crossroads?

As this becomes more part of company culture, I believe that we will see it change their external events and large events as well. I’m seeing some of it now.

Large events depend on planning. Period. But I am now seeing events being planned using social media threads, and with more and more ad hoc time being not only accepted, but demanded. Recently, I was sent all of the outlines for meeting using one cloud-based system, and material submitted on three more. The idea of the “show book” is becoming harder and harder to keep up with as guests, presenters, and attendees, each become used to tracking these things in their own way, developing their materials in their own way, and presenting them in their own way.

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On top of that, the audience now gets into the act. All the time. There are very few meetings that I can think of recently that did not have constant comment going on via social media, often displayed on screens. Watching them go on, at times I feel that the audience is talking to each other more than to the presenters. This may be what they want, and with their internal meetings may be what they need. But the sudden changes in the meeting that are driven by these comments, and accepted by the presenters, can make it hard for a crew to follow.

Besides that, I guess that one of the problems that I have with it is that this trend tends to remove some of the things about meetings that I have enjoyed the most. In staging, we have always had a high theatrical element. We have stage sets, themes, skits, rehearsals, and a crew that knows what is going on at all times to achieve a desired effect. When the desired effect is ad hoc, what do we do with the show? How do we make the event something special?

And, as a longtime presenter, I have to ask the question, “Is ad hoc spontaneity a substitute for content?” Often, I get the comment “we don’t want too much agenda, because we want to encourage the free flow of ideas.” But all too often now, when I ask what is going to happen at a particular point in a meeting, I get the response that they don’t know yet.

Over the last year, I’ve seen more and more development of products designed for this type of spontaneous use in large meetings. There are now several systems for using smart phones for polling or even as microphone systems where anyone in the audience with a smart phone can talk. I’ve seen websites and cloud-based systems developed to capture meeting information among large groups. I’ve even seen professional facilitators spring up for holding these kinds of meetings.

So it has the opportunity to change the way large meetings work. It’s a curve we must stay out in front of, as inevitably some people will decide down the road that if meetings are going to be conducted this way anyway, the large event will become unnecessary. I don’t believe that is true, and I believe that the pendulum will swing back the other way as it always does. In the meantime, those of us in the rental and staging industry need to both stay ahead of the technology curve on this, and to be prepared to help clients get the most of these technologies, while reminding them what events are really all about.

Because the last thing we want is to be standing at the edge of the crossroads watching them go by.