A while back I reviewed Poll Everywhere – a Web 2.0-based tool for organisations to conduct polls and surveys at meetings, workshops and conferences. The software enables attendees to participate and vote via SMS text messages from their mobile phones in real time.
iMEET! is aimed at a broadly similar market and is also web-based, but with a somewhat different direction and emphasis. I was fortunate to get some experience in using iMEET! at a workshop recently (disclaimer: I was also helping to run the workshop, though I had nothing to do with the choice of facilitator or technology).
Just as Poll Everywhere introduced a modern take on voting in conferences, iMEET! does the same for the traditional process of gathering and processing workshop feedback.
I think everyone has sat through one variation or another of the seemingly timeless process of workshop brainstorming sessions at conferences. You know the drill – everyone breaks into small groups, debates who is going to be the scribe and then leaves that person with the thankless task of recording the discussions on multiple sheets of butcher’s paper.
These are then used to report back to the whole group in some sort of plenary session – and then after the meeting some poor soul has the job of transcribing a mass of notes, scrawled in different hands, into some sort of coherent report of the outcomes. The process is time-consuming, and to be frank, unexciting, which means that conference organisers all over the world have to deal with the problem of conference participants nicking off before the dreaded final report-back plenary session.
Relatively few technological innovations have impacted on this process since, it seems, the beginning of time. One was the introduction of electronic whiteboards, but these are clumsy and relatively expensive and most venues usually have only one or two. They really only lend themselves to being used by a small group holding a plenary workshop session.
Other innovations such as the use of small networked voting pads have not really caught on because of their proprietary nature. Laptops have also been used, but while these have facilitated the process of recording workshop outcomes, there has not been an effective application to integrate the results in a plenary session-friendly discussion format. For most of the workshops I’ve attended and convened it’s been the good old butcher’s paper, even though butchers themselves have long since moved to plastic!
Enter iMEET!, which is making a strong claim to being the game-changing application for conferences and workshops. It uses lap-tops, but integrates them in a very innovative way, linking them wirelessly so that information can be entered into a web-based iMEET! database directly.
To quote the company’s website:
“[This] information is stored on a central server and made available to all other laptops, and projected via a data projector onto a large screen for all to view. All that you need to be able to do is enter content via the keyboard into the intuitive interface on the computer, using a standard web browser.”
In practice the system is easy to use. Each small group is allocated a laptop and in most cases still has to appoint someone to record the outcomes of the workshop (or “focus session” in iMEET!’s parlance). However, instead of scribbling on large sheets of paper, the scribe enters the comments into an interface on the laptop which is a little like an on-line forum (in theory each member of the group could take turns to enter their own comments, but having a single person as the group’s recorder provides more consistency and helps to ensure that the recorded comments are mediated by the whole group in some way).
Drop-down boxes can be added by the facilitator for groups to categorise their comments as they make them – for example, they could be asked to characterise their comments as either, say, positive or negative, or as short, medium or long term actions. Typically, each group sees only its own comments on its laptop, however, the responses are brought together on a single computer to be reviewed by the workshop facilitator and displayed to the whole workshop on a large screen in real time, with the group making each comment clearly marked.
During the session itself or immediately afterwards the facilitator can prioritise and categorise the comments, bring together related ideas or identify potential conflicts. The fun really begins in the subsequent plenary session, which is much faster and more interactive than usual – no more succession of people dragging sheets of butcher’s paper up to a podium and reading out their hand-written comments.
Instead the outcomes are immediately available and the facilitator can lead the whole group in making sense of them, identifying key issues and seeking responses from the audience. The material can be reshaped or expanded as a result of input from the whole group. For example, a set of options for future action can be selected and the participants invited to vote on them. As with Poll Everywhere, the outcomes are displayed in real time, though in iMEET!, the number of laptops available at the workshop is obviously a limitation.
After the meeting the final output can be delivered as a Word or Excel document within 24 hours of the event – or the iMEET! session left open for further online comment by participants (via a secured website) with output provided at a nominated time.
Verdict: having seen iMEET! in action I can vouch both for its effectiveness and for the speed with which the results were produced. I was very impressed, as were most of the workshop participants.
There is one important difference between iMEET! and programs such as Poll Everywhere and MyCommittee (which I have also reviewed) – even though it is web-based, iMEET! doesn’t lend itself to being treated just as an off-the-shelf product. It really needs at least a preliminary consultation with the consultancy team behind it (Australian-based Global Learning) to understand its full potential and to set it up properly.
It also works best when workshop participants can be split up into relatively small groups – say no more than five or six people per laptop. This makes it easier for everyone to see what is being recorded and also allows the group’s recorder to keep up with the input.
Global Learning can provide facilitation services as well as the laptops, or the client can use their own. Any reasonable PC or Mac laptop with reasonable battery life will do, as long as they can access the internet directly or through a wireless LAN. Even netbooks could be used, though the latest crop of CULV laptops with larger screens might be a better bet.
As a result of the number of options involved it is probably best to get pricing information directly from iMEET!, though I understand that it is available on a conference-by-conference basis.
The really interesting thing is how iMEET! rounds out the suite of meeting and workshop-related products which are relevant to small and medium organisations, complementing applications already in this arena such as MyCommittee and Poll Everywhere.
While there is some degree of overlap between these products – particularly between Poll Everywhere and iMEET! – it’s best to think of how these applications can be used together creatively. For example, MyCommittee could be used to setup a meeting, and iMEET! to run workshops or Poll Everywhere to record votes on important issues during the meeting . Or iMEET! could be used to workshop key options through small groups prior to a major conference at which Poll Everywhere is used by a larger group of participants to vote on these options.
In summary, iMEET! fills an important, if hitherto largely ignored, niche. It could help you to make your next conference much more productive and who knows – the dreaded end-of-day plenary could even become a lot more interesting for you and your participants.
As always, you should look at the issues I have raised in previous posts about avoiding problems with Web 2.0 applications in evaluating iMEET!