backchannelKnowledge amplification or just plain rudeness?
Even the New York Times is now writing about back-channeling, the process of carrying on secondary ‘side-bar’ conversations via IM, e-mail and other written media while someone holds forth at the front of the room.

Thus far most of the discussion has been, literally, academic, describing back-channeling in the classroom. While some advocates see it as a means of quietly helping enrich other classmates’ knowledge during unidirectional 1-to-n lectures, others see it as a rude distraction, the e-quivalent of passing notes in class. Some supporters of the practice suggest the back-chatter be available to the speaker and all attendees, or even (as Liz Lawley recently demonstrated) displayed on the wall behind the lecturer, so others can join the conversation, and so the presenter can instantly change gears if s/he detects confusion, or interest in a tangent, among the audience.

I work for a company that has been ambivalent about the practice in the workplace. Just as IBM allowed attendees to quietly walk out of meetings (with impunity) if they felt the meetings were not valuable, so do we allow the distraction of ubiquitous connected laptops in the room (provided customers are not present). The first few minutes of each internal meeting are thus often consumed creating a rats’ nest of network cables plugged to hubs and power cords plugged to sockets, snaking chaotically across boardroom tables. While the meeting chairperson can decree a meeting ‘flaps-down’, and a speaker or attendee can request undivided attention for a particular discussion, it is now considered excessive to invoke laptop closure when it isn’t absolutely necessary. While attendees can half-way ‘tune out’ for parts of a meeting that don’t concern them, inattentive attendees who require questions or points to be repeated get scowls from the whole room for abusing their back-channeling privileges.

In fact much of the IM and e-mail conversation that goes on during meetings isn’t even back-channeling, but communication and work on completely different subjects or projects, essentially multi-tasking during meetings. The protocols are still tenuous, and objections and prohibitions still frequently occur, but employees clearly find it productive, and are more likely to attend meetings where it is permitted. Telecommuting, which often entails multi-tasking in any case, reinforces the trend. Wireless connectivity through the firewall, coming to our company later this year, will accelerate it. Some online learning and multi-location conferencing tools actually incorporate back-channeling functionality (creating what Clay Shirky calls ‘two-track meetings’). These tools route the chatter and questions to the presenters to compensate for the lack of audience body language. And offsite meetings and conferences at hotels that don’t accommodate connections for back-channeling and multi-tasking now elicit grumbles from attendees, who scurry away to network rooms during breaks, sometimes returning only after the next break.

As both a speaker and listener at many ‘internal’ business meetings each month, I think it’s a wonderful trend, and I welcome it. As Cory Doctorow describes it, “we’re just moving the corridor into the room and time-shifting it”. If people in a meeting are sending each other messages criticizing the speaker and/or the thesis of discussion, generally the most senior conversant will interrupt the speaker to abridge, clarify, accelerate or redirect the presentation. That’s not rudeness, it’s just-in-time learning for the presenter and value added for the attendees.

Using blogs and other tools to ‘broadcast’ the highlights of presentations to absent readers promises to expand the power and reach of meetings and conferences further, especially if it’s done live. I have relayed questions and comments just-in-time from people unable to attend a meeting (for logistic or cost reasons) to the front of the room, saving the firm both time and money and adding important new perspectives to the discussion.

I can envision the day when meetings have two levels of invitees — a primary group who will ‘attend’ (in person or virtually) the entire meeting or scheduled parts of it, and a secondary group who will keep IM open and be ‘on call’ to provide quick comments, answers or opinions on specific issues if and when they arise. The possibility, through back-channeling and multi-tasking, of achieving simultaneity of holding, documenting, and assigning actions resulting from meetings will allow participants to leave the meeting with everything that needs to be done already done. It could bring to everyday meetings the power of Accelerated Solutions Environments (places where technology, knowledge and support resources are gathered to enable business decisions that would normally take months, due to the need for approvals, research, and back-and-forth discussion, to occur instantaneously during the course of the gathering).

What frustrates some senior managers, I think, is that they have not mastered the skills of back-channeling, blogging or multi-tasking themselves, and can’t conceive that younger employees are able to carry on many conversations and activities in parallel without losing important threads. The next generation of employees, who have cut their teeth on chat, will make even the current vanguard of employees look pedestrian.

And after the first experience, it no longer hurts the ego to be presenting to a group who are mostly face-focused on their laptop screens. You learn to tell from the quality of questions and comments, or lack of them, whether your presentation is reaching the audience or not. The heads bobbing up as you state your main thesis or say something particularly insightful provides better guidance on what’s getting through than a uniform sea of disinterested listeners with nothing else to look at than your Powerpoint slides.

Next Week — Part Two of this discussion — Are e-mails between bloggers that go on behind and between the comments threads another kind of back-channeling? When is this preferable to comments? When is it appropriate? When is it cheating the blog’s readers? And what about bloggers that don’t have comments enabled, so that back-channeling is the only way to engage them in conversation?

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  1. Rayne says:

    Hmm, I am conflicted about back-channeling. Some of it’s “left-hand conversation” (see The Fifth Discipline) which really should be out in the open like “right-hand conversation”. Don’t you find much side conversation to be that which one would feel threatened to say in public, business forum?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Rayne: At present, probably yes. I think any new tool takes time for people to learn to use properly. The first applications of IM in our company were atrocious, time-wasting, frivolous, and we never taught people how to use it. Now it is used right up to the top levels of the organization, usually very properly and productively. And sometimes shyness is good — a message to someone that reads “Does what she’s saying mean X?” or “I missed the point of that last section – did you get it?” is valuable as a left-hand conversation but not as a right-hand one. We will eventually learn the protocol of what should be said aloud, what should be back-channeled, and what should not be said at all.

  3. Justin Hitt says:

    I think there is a difference between paying attention and contributing to the value of a meeting. If someone is going to commit to the objectives of a meeting, they need to be involved in a constructive manner– this means letting each speaker have their say, and talking in turn.Allowing real-time conversations DURING the main presentation is disrespectful to the speaker and childish.The reason protocol like Robert’s Rule of Order have held on for so long is because it allowed organized communications. If you miss a point, then check the meeting minutes, if you had something to say, you were given the floor accordingly.Perhaps let’s start this type of technology with submitting questions and distributing notes, but locking out side conversations.Sincerely,Justin HittConsultant, Author & Speaker

  4. I was wandering whether IM and weblogging could forcibly keep people away from traditional oral communication, especially in circumstances, like public lectures or meetings, when the exposure brought in by a speech can be easily avoided through such a technology. IM in this case prevents new conversations, those enriched by body language, instead of fostering them.What’s your opinion about this?

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Zelig, I’m not sure. I’ve seen young people convey a lot with IM & chat by virtue of sheer rapidfire back-and-forth volume that at least rivals what is conveyed in more measured oral communication. However, IM is clearly a ‘cooler’ medium (in McLuhanesque terms) than face-to-face and even telephone speech, and over-reliance on it could make it even more difficult, especially for people who are introverts, to develop proficiency in, and comfort with, and appropriately use, the more intimate forms of communication.

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