PC's New Role: Meeting Facilitator

Lawrence J. Magid is senior analyst at Seybold Group, a computer consulting and publication firm

Bernard DeKoven has created a new profession. He's a "technographer." In other words, DeKoven, head of a Palo Alto firm named Computer-Enhanced Meetings, uses personal computers to help people work together in making decisions and producing reports.

Actually, the idea is simple. A technographer sits on the sidelines at a meeting, taking notes on a personal computer. The participants in the meeting read the technographer's notes displayed on a large screen or on monitors placed about the room.

The goal is for everyone, including the speaker, to view and respond to what is being said. At any time during the meeting, information can be printed out so the participants can review or even edit the proceedings.

I've known about DeKoven's work for a couple of years but must admit that I didn't take it very seriously at first. After all, anyone with good listening skills and a note pad should be able to get down what is going on in a meeting.

But after reading DeKoven's self-published, 48-page book, "Power Meetings: An Introduction to Computer-Enhanced Meetings," I have come to realize the extent to which a computer can help people work together. (The book can be ordered for $5 from C-EM Publications, 2972 Clara Drive, Palo Alto, CA 94303.)

Using a computer to display the contents or outline of a talk does for informal discussions what an overhead projector does for a formal presentation. It reduces ambiguity and helps clarify the most important points.

The ability to edit on the spot also makes it easier for a group to reach a consensus quickly. Numbers take on greater meaning when they are turned into graphs in the middle of a discussion. At the end of a meeting, a technographer can produce a written report for immediate distribution.

DeKoven suggests this process for a variety of situations. In his book, he describes a friendly divorce settlement with an attorney, secretary and the parting couple sitting around the computer screen using the PC to list and divide the couple's community property.

He also describes corporate brainstorming sessions where executives sit around a conference room while a technographer records every idea so that the group can set priorities. At the end of the meeting, each person walks away with a copy of an agreed-upon work plan.

Depending upon the situation, DeKoven uses either an IBM PC or an Apple Macintosh. Sometimes he needs to run several programs at once. In only a few minutes, he may use a word processing program, drawing software, a spreadsheet and an outline processor.

Switching from program to program requires first running special software that allows you to load various programs into memory. For the Apple Macintosh, Apple provides Switcher. On an IBM PC or compatible, you might use DesqView from Santa Monica-based QuarterDeck Office Systems.

DeKoven makes heavy use of outline processors when recording "power meetings." When using an Apple Macintosh, he uses More, a $295 outline and presentation processing program from Mountain View, Calif.-based Living Videotext. When using an IBM PC, DeKoven prefers MaxThink, an $89 program from Oakland-based MaxThink.

MaxThink President Neil Larson describes his program as an "idea processor." With MaxThink, says Larson, a person recording a meeting "has the ability to capture the group's information, move it around and suppress everything but the topic sentence."

As a result, the group can focus on what is important. MaxThink, like most outline processors, allows you to suppress layers of detail. The detailed information is there, but it's not necessarily on the screen.

The More software takes advantage of the Macintosh's graphic interface to present information in a variety of ways. Information can be outlined, displayed in bullet charts or converted into a tree chart.

Almost any good outline-processing program can be used to shuffle ideas. Someone can offer a thought without worrying about where, or even whether, it fits. Later it can be discarded, elevated or placed into the right cubbyhole.

As a writer, I long have appreciated the computer's ability to let me change my mind. And what works for the written word also can work for spoken language.

Computer File welcomes readers' comments but regrets that the authors cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Lawrence J. Magid, 100 Homeland Court, Suite 100, San Jose, Calif. 95112, or contact the L. Magid account on the MCI electronic mail system.

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