Dec 28 2007

Conference call practices to generate knowledge and record learning

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By John D. Smith (http://learningalliances.net ) and Shawn Callahan (http://www.anecdote.com.au) with comments from Madelyn Blair

This practice note has seven parts:

  1. Practice summary
  2. Audience
  3. “Before the call” methods
  4. “During the call” methods
  5. “After the call” methods
  6. Variants and applicability
  7. Health-check questions

1. Practice Summary

Teleconferences are a fact of life in business and in the life of many communities. And many of us have instant messaging tools like AIM, MSN, or Skype installed on our computers. Yet few people are aware of the utility of combining the audio channel of a teleconference with the text of an online chats in a way that enhances the learning experience for everyone involved. The technology, along with attention to the collaborative spirit can make this form a powerful knowledge-generating process. A community of practice framework helps us bring out the value of this simple practice, whether it’s used by a large group or just two people at a time.
This note describes how to take notes collaboratively while having a conversation on the phone. This collaborative note-taking approach is useful for several reasons:

  • Phone calls support synchronous “thinking together,” negotiation of meaning and turn-taking in familiar ways
  • Synchronous note-taking allows people to share what they heard said or what they want to add (e.g., URLs) without the turn-taking constraints of a phone call
  • As an artifact, a chat transcript is an informal record of what was said that’s portable, easy to scan, a reliable memory jogger, and is a helpful first draft for more polished writing.
  • An audio recording can be evocative of the original conversation if it’s portable and documented so that prospective listeners know what the recording contains.
  • There are advantages of having an integrated chat and audio recording, but it’s most economical to have them separate.

2. Audience and relevance

This method will interest you if you lead or participate in conversations in distributed groups that:

  • generate new insights or knowledge,
  • mix people with different perspectives so the outcomes may be uncertain,
  • bring together people with different linguistic backgrounds (e.g., different mother tongues or different professional vocabularies),
  • want both collective focus (say, on what one speaker is presenting) and fringe awareness (say, on what diverse reactions might bring to the conversation),
  • have the possibility of referencing web or other resources to augment the voice conversation,
  • need the exchange to be self-documenting because people can’t afford to take on much “follow-on” work.

3. “Before the call” methods

A good teleconference requires some preparation to prepare for the social side as well as the technology side . Here are several methods related to setting up a call.

Technical alternatives for meeting:

  • Up to 3 people can meet with phone conferencing available on a regular phone
  • Small groups can work with Skype conferencing alone – currently there is a limit of 9 users
    • Skype can mix people on Skype with people a regular phone (but Skype-out charges apply)
  • A telephone bridge is most common / best for large groups
  • Important to let people know exactly how the meeting will occur

Phone bridge as a point of control (using http://highspeedconferencing.com/ as an example here)

  • Moderator can see who’s participating
  • Moderator can mute people suspected of causing noise
  • The phone bridge can record the call
  • The phone bridge can serve up recordings

Access considerations

  • Skype seems somewhat unstable with wi-fi, particularly if wi-fi suffers from bandwidth constraints
  • Communities and groups typically are ‘unstable’ in terms of where people are calling from, what access issues they face, etc.
  • Low bandwidth users can use the chat facility of Skype while calling in on a standard phone with the bridge

Recording the audio conversation (requires planning before the call)

  • Recordings extend the utility of a call
    • Need to ask for permission beforehand
    • People may be more sensitive to having their words recorded than to having chat notes quote them
  • There are several different strategies for producing audio recording
    • the phone bridge
    • software like Callrecorder or Powergrammo for Skype (Callrecorder may link audio & text time stamps)
    • a recorder attached to the telephone
  • Because text is much smaller, it can serve as an introduction to the audio recording which is richer in nuance

Agenda planning

  • Provide a familiar “launch-pad” page with phone number and related technical information
  • Provide an agenda and other resources
  • Provide a link to information about a featured speaker
  • Use a location where participants can post their pictures and profiles
  • How to resolve time zone differences?
    • Always meet at the same date for consistency
    • Take turns to share the discomfort of off-hours
    • Make an effort to support absentees

4. “During the Call” methods

Ensemble production

  • Audio
    • Audio interaction on a phone bridge takes some skill
    • usually need a designated leader
  • Text
    • text interaction is also a skill
    • Everyone who’s at a computer can participate in collective note taking in a Skype or other chat room:
      • All can write “at the same time”
      • All can refer to previously entered text, such as agenda items called out at the beginning of the call
      • going for “the meaning” (which is different for different people)
      • quoting the “actual words”
      • take notes when you are not talking
      • adding URLs for discussion — clickable
  • Blend audio & text — that’s a further skill (“listen” to the chatroom)
    • who takes the lead in audio & text?
    • will someone “read into the record” — bring up the silent comments mentioned in the chat?
  • How to create the desired ensemble production atmosphere?
    • Providing a “how to” guide?
    • Setting aside a moment to discuss protocol
    • Produce a summary of the call afterwards — an index and invitation to listen

5. “After the call” methods

  • Clean up the chat notes (e.g., remove time stamps, standardize or clean up names, correct spelling)
  • Include a very short summary (quote the verbal summary of to-do’s at the end of the call at a minimum)
  • Distribute the chat notes to everyone who was present
  • Post the notes where they can be referred to in the future
  • Pull out key lines and put them in an editable place such as a Google doc or a wiki
  • Have handy for “quoting” from the text during the next call

6. Variants and applicability

  • Capturing and publishing the chat-room notes from WebEx or Elluminate sessions can serve a similar purpose
  • This practice works from simple one-to-one calls to larger group events.
  • Notice that Skype is not just one tool, but is a platform that collects several tools together:
    • One-to-one telephony (Skype-to-Skype and Skype-out)
    • Telephone conferencing
    • Video conferencing
    • One-to-one chat
    • Many-to-many chat
    • “Friends” directory
    • Global subscriber directory & member profiling system
    • Activity history (calls, chats, etc.)
    • Presence awareness
  • High speed conferencing feature list (incomplete)
    • Connects Skype and plain old telephone calls
    • Controls muting
    • Makes recordings
    • Serves them up
    • Send out email announcements (email list capability)

7. Health-check questions

  • Is the group sharing the work of note-taking?
  • Does knowledge migrate from the raw notes into other group artifacts?
  • Does someone make an effort to weave written statements back into the phone conversation?
  • How can you provide multiple pathways to participation?
    • Jumping in because you know you want to participate:
      • Get an email invitation
      • Call into the phone bridge
      • Join in the talking and note-taking
      • Follow-up on the notes
  • Gradual based on inspection of previous calls:
    • Look at other call summaries
    • Find the next call
    • Jump in as above
  • Passive, peripheral, lurking
    • Permit listening with no obligation to inspect previous calls, as above

    The structure of this practice note is derived from an example by Kate Pugh and Nancy Dixon.

    This page continues to evolve on CPsquare’s wiki, as part of the Technology for Communities project: http://cpsquare.org/wiki/Teleconferencing_and_Chat_practices

    8 responses so far

    8 Responses to “Conference call practices to generate knowledge and record learning”

    1. […] There’s a pattern that’s developed in CPsquare and that I’ve been purposeful in developing elsewhere. I think it has lots of good learning practice built into it.  I put it on a public Google doc for a while, but since I haven’t received any comments about it for a while, I decided it was stable enough to post as a page in its own right:  http://www.learningalliances.net/index.php/resources/conference-call-practices/ […]

    2. […] My friends John Smith and Shawn Callahan have put together a great resource for communities of practice, teams and other groups who use teleconferences calls. Conference call practices to generate knowledge and record learning […]

    3. […] There’s a pattern that’s developed in CPsquare and that I’ve been purposeful in developing elsewhere. I think it has lots of good learning practice built into it.  I put it on a public Google doc for a while, but since I haven’t received any comments about it for a while, I decided it was stable enough to post as a page in its own right: http://www.learningalliances.net/index.php/resources/conference-call-practices/ […]

    4. Peter Chomley says:

      is section 6 missing or should section 7 onwards be renumbered?
      Excellent guidelines that should be strongly heeded. I did some research a couple of years ago re the number of participants in IRC sessions: our findings were that, for effective communication, group size was most effective at 5-8 members. Between 8 and 12 members then you needed to limit discussion threads and group norms/netequitte had to be well understood and followed. Over 12 members then effectivity was severly downgraded.

    5. John Smith says:

      You’re right, Peter. I fixed that. Thanks. I’d be interested in knowing more about that research on IRC sessions. We looked at an examples for the Digital Habitats book that might be seen as a counter-example: an IRC channel for Ruby on rails that seemed to regularly have more than 400 people on it. Of course all but a small number were just listening (probably robots keeping a copy or scanning to alert their masters when a particular string turns up). I think the combination of phone and chat complicates the calculation as to how many participants are “too many.”

    6. […] Smith and I worked together last year using Google Docs to create this practice note on ways to get the most from conference […]

    7. […] Conference call practices to generate knowledge and record learning by John D. Smith and Shawn Callahan […]

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