Voice of the Virtual Participant

| We’ve all experienced the shift. Meetings confined to the meeting room? Not so much anymore. Over the past decade, decision-making boards and widely attended conferences, along with the average team meetings, are rarely restricted to the people in the physical room. Rather, teleconferencing technologies promise to save dwindling travel budgets, connect distributed teams, gather worldwide […]

We’ve all experienced the shift. Meetings confined to the meeting room? Not so much anymore. Over the past decade, decision-making boards and widely attended conferences, along with the average team meetings, are rarely restricted to the people in the physical room. Rather, teleconferencing technologies promise to save dwindling travel budgets, connect distributed teams, gather worldwide experts to a one-of-a-kind summits or simply make it possible for really busy people to be in two places at once.

“Virtual” participation isn’t new. Years (and years) ago New York Telephone coined the phrase “we are all connected”, and that philosophy has held true when businesses used analog desktop conferencing calls to bring together their shareholders and partners from around the world. But lately there has been an influx of new technologies which really push the limit of what’s possible. High-def video conferencing, shared desktops, and unlimited cellular voice plans have all tried to convince us to work from home – or cover more meetings than we have ever thought possible.

An old Blackberry leaning against an older see-thru touch-tone phone.

And let me tell you, these technologies are really great, and can make us all……

“Excuse me. Can the speaker please get closer to the mic?”

What was that?!?

It’s the statement of desperation; a last resort after maxing out cell phone volume, finding an empty gate at the airport, or closing the door to the home office. Not wanting to interrupt – but driven by a need to be an integral part of the conversation – these words are a verbal request that a little more respect be given to those “on the net”, not just that the microphone be moved.

But it’s not just voiced information that technology can help transmit. If you look back to an email that we all received in the past 4-5 months or so, you can see a list of examples of these…

“Um, yeah… Can’t find it. Do you just have it on a stick?”

Ahh, the stick. A portable hard drive that bypasses almost every layer of security between the core processor of a government computer and 8GB of unknown content. It’s not the only way to transfer files, but moving a 500MB movie file in 30 seconds flat (while in a wireless dead zone) really makes you feel like it’s 2011.

“Oh, and please keep this between the group in the room and the few of us on the phone, but at the end of 2011 we will be releasing the best [[beep-BEEP]]Uhh… Who just joined?”

Whether you’re the NASA Administrator, a division chief, astronaut or intern, everyone makes the same entrance: “beep-BEEP”. For that matter, they all make same exit: “BEEP-beep”. I wonder if a physical meeting’s conversation would be different if its participants put on ski masks before entering the room?  Naaaa…

So maybe the technology isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe we should just revert to the old ways of getting people in a room together and let them use their humanly instinctive communication skills. Maybe we’re just attempting too darn much with technology these days….

…Or maybe technology isn’t the only factor.

Introducing a new tool prompts questions like, “Is it cross-platform?”, “How secure is it?”, or “How much does it cost?”. Or, when seeking a tool to fill a gap, simply “What are the requirements?” But it’s often impossible to predict how people will use the tool. As individuals and teams start using a new product, solutions to its barriers are collectively learned, norms are established based on prior experiences and current leadership, and eventually a culture of use emerges.

Christer Fugelsang on a spacewalk during STS-116In the past I’ve had a keen interest in the cultures that are created around communication technology at NASA, and in the near future I’ll be posting more about how these specific technologies are used across our Agency, with the hopes that it creates a conversation about the culture of their use.

In many ways, NASA is just like many other large organizations, doing the best we can to communicate between two boardrooms thousands of miles apart. In most cases we can compare notes with the real world, since “there’s an app for that” and NASA probably isn’t the first one to use it. But there are some things that separate us from the pack. A lot of the communications technologies that NASA uses are VERY unique: from the hundreds of accessible voice loops fed to every Space Shuttle flight controller’s console, to the strange and sometimes debilitating effect that microphone placement has on the voice of an astronaut in a spacesuit. And hey, sorry there, satellite-phone-toting reporter on CNN – NASA invented speed-of-light lag time.

Each of these applications and challenges, however general to the world or specific to pushing the frontiers of spaceflight, have a common thread – they’re trying to use state of the art technology to get information out of one mind and into someone else’s. If the habits, reactions, and other characteristics of those minds aren’t taken into account, there’s a good chance the culture of use will foster rejection, and the technology will be seen as “just another fancy toy”.

So I ask anyone who made it this far down the post: what “fancy toys” are the most useful to you as a “Virtual Participant”?  Any tools you can’t live without, or wish had never been invented? Share your stories in the comments. We’ll pick a few hot topics and expand on their culture of use here at NASA in a future blog post.

[[BEEP-beep]]


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  • Cody Clark

    IM was invaluable. Usually as a backchannel to whatever telecon I was on. Also as a way to let someone know I had somehow been booted off the phone or the webconference site. I also remember this app doohickey that optimized scheduling calls based on the attendee’s calendars and the “time zone pain” based on geographical distribution.

    What would be helpful is some kind of feedback channel I could check to see how I sounded on the other end. Something that would tell me if I was coming across as one of those “breathers” I always find annoying (or worse, a “chewer”)

  • http://twitter.com/jonverve Jon Verville

    Great post Chris. I have definitely been on telecons where folks just turn on the conference phone and then completely forget all about it. So it alternates between someone speaking right next to the mic and someone on the other side of the room.

    I often have to ask myself, “How annoying do I want to be as a remote participant?” In many telecons I know I would have to nag to get folks to actually consider remote participants.

    I love Google Docs, because its really a great lowest common denominator for access. I really have never had a problem connecting, and its great to follow the notes. Its definitely better when everyone is logged in so I can see who is making what comments. The integrated chat is very nice for resolving little things. But…if I have no voice at all, its nearly impossible to follow whats going on. For the Open Source Summit, it was great using the google doc for the just the remote folks working together, but it was near impossible to follow what the “in person” folks were doing in the same document. That was a little confusing, but certainly an interesting experiment. Maybe next time it would be more useful to have those documents separate and integrate them later on? But maybe that would be more confusing.

    Just my 2 cents.