In early May, I had occasion to participate in an extraordinary experiment. No lab coats or bubbling serums were involved, but the results of the experiment are well worth reporting, if only because they provide an interesting glimpse at the possibilities and limitations of communication in the emerging era of global connectedness. Among the most compelling discoveries: It is extremely difficult to get people to dance via satellite.
Multimedia courtesy of Mayo
Every spring, the Communications Media Management Association (CMMA) holds a professional-development conference for its membership. The event is normally held in a city easily accessible by plane, and members fly in for a couple of days of shop talk and sharing. Attendance had been lagging the past few years, however. Due to shriveling travel budgets, many members were skipping the spring conference in order to attend the association's more entertaining fall conference, which is typically held in a location – Key Biscayne, San Antonio, New Orleans – with some appeal above and beyond the fascinations of corporate communication. The CMMA didn't want to scrap the spring conference entirely, so it decided to try something different this year: If they couldn't bring members to the meeting, they would bring the meeting to the members.
Luckily, one of the CMMA's member organizations is the Mayo Clinic, whose Media Support Services is the subject of our cover story in July. Using Mayo's Rochester, Minn., headquarters as a central base, the CMMA organized an all-day virtual conference that was ultimately beamed via satellite to members in 22 locations throughout the United States and Canada. I participated from a conference room at General Mills' headquarters in Minneapolis, along with a dozen or so other members from the area. The theme of the day was "The Human Side of Media," but what I ended up seeing was, ironically, one of the most interesting and sophisticated applications of modern communication technology it has been my pleasure to witness.
Down go the barriers
The program was divided into sessions that alternated between segments broadcast via satellite from Mayo's television studio and local breakout exercises presided over by a host member. During the broadcast portions, remote participants could ask questions or offer comments via a simultaneous Internet hookup to a WebEx meeting room.
CMMA members typically hold management-level communication or audio-visual positions in large companies. But despite their expertise in high-tech communications, no one in our group had participated in anything quite as ambitious as this conference. There was some skepticism that the day might turn out to be a waste of time, but also a sense of anticipation stemming from the knowledge that we were all participating in a unique event, technologically speaking.
Still, the open question was whether the participants – 147 people in 22 cities – would find the event valuable enough to repeat next year.
That worry didn't last long. As dispersed as we were, it didn't take long for the group to find ways to break down those distance barriers. During the segments broadcast from Mayo, the WebEx chat room was alive with questions, observations, jokes and good-natured ribbing.
Soft shoe, hard sell
Gradually, over the course of the day, a comfortable rhythm was established – an hour of programming from Mayo here, an hour of local discussion there – and everyone seemed to agree that the day was delivering some surprising rewards. However, the final segment of the day, an entertaining and thoughtful performance by motivational speaker Nick Mezacapa, proved there are still limits to the power of even the most sophisticated communication technology.
At one point, Mezacapa, broadcasting from Mayo's TV studio, asked everyone in all 22 locations to get up and dance. Had we been in the studio itself, I'm sure group psychology would have taken over and all of us would have grudgingly gotten to our feet. But safely tucked in our remote conference room where the speaker couldn't see us, forget it. Sure, the day was full of technical triumphs and unexpected insights, and the fact that we had all participated in this wildly successful experiment carried with it a certain sense of satisfaction. But none of it was enough to make us get up and dance.
In retrospect, I wish I had, but it's too late now. Oh well, maybe next year.
Tad Simons is editor-in-chief of Presentations magazine. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.