Have Webinar, Will Travel

In this age of limited resources, companies are scaling back on travel. But they’re achieving “virtual travel” by providing web conferencing and webinars!

Have you participated in any webinars or web meetings recently? If so, you’ve probably noticed that the field is advancing before our very eyes. In my attempt to keep up, I started participating in webinars sponsored by various companies, such as publishers and professional associations. It’s great because you get to see how these things are run. I’m always interested in knowing: How interactive are they? Can the participants speak to the presenter or host? How do you ask questions? This exposure is helping me get over the “virtual hump”, and now colleagues are asking me what functionality is out there!

Here’s what I’m discovering about interactivity: Turns out that many webinars are minimally interactive, with presenters talking for 30-40 minutes. Oftentimes, the webinar allows only one-way audio, to listen to the presenter. If you want to ask a question, you type it in, usually at the end of the session, for the presenter to respond to. In one recent example, I learned that the host is adding an Instant Messaging feature, so you can IM the presenter during the talk. In these presentations there’s often two lead roles: the presenter (content expert) and the host (the sponsoring organization). The host helps out by managing the software, fielding the questions and passing them on to the presenter.

Increasing the interactivity: Most conferencing software now includes polling and/or survey functions, so that the presenter can check in with participants during the session. The more participatory sessions are conducted with collaboration software, for example: Webex, WebIQ (now WIQ), Facilitate Pro. We should be clear what we mean by “collaboration” – are we sharing documents? allowing people to edit the document – one at a time, or several at a time, like a wiki? or simultaneously writing our ideas and submitting them to a shared whiteboard? The purpose of your online meeting will help determine the functionality that you need; for example, for a presentation, you may only need the presenter to show their slides. If you want people to be able to make comments on the slides, they need editing rights. If you’re brainstorming ideas, you’ll want everyone to be able to write on a whiteboard.

What are the challenges of “going virtual”? First of all, you’ll want to learn the different capabilities of the software platforms; if you want to host a meeting or a webinar, you have to learn how to use the software, or find someone to partner with who can take on that role. You have to get familiar with the audio and video features – are you using 2-way audio, so people can participate in the conversation? How do you deal with unwelcome noise? You may need to limit the number of participants if you’re going to allow for discussion. If you want to have breakout groups, you have to plan for that; you might have to pre-assign people to small groups, and decide whether they’re going to work on the same task or different tasks. Some platforms allow now allow for breakout groups, which is a wonderful feature (i.e. Webex training center, Maestro Conference).

Want to learn more? You can take advantage of free webinars, such as: American Management Association (amanet.org); HR.com; Pfeiffer Publishers (pfeiffer.com). See you online!

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