The Paperless Meeting

night-office-shirt-mailWe’ve all read about “The Paperless Office” first coined in 1964 by IBM to sell their video display terminals. Over time this term has become understood as the replacement of paper documents with electronic ones, using scanners and document storage software. We still have a long way to go before we reach this goal, but the tide has definitely turned. There is less paper used in business today than 10 years ago. Why the decline? Perhaps the biggest influence is the increasing ease with which electronic documents can be shared. Just generating a document with a PC doesn’t reduce the amount of paper you use if the only way to share it is to print it!

Sharing Documents

At SmartDraw we began sharing documents many years ago by attaching them to emails. This works but it’s quite difficult to manage the resultant multiple versions of the same document. About 10 years ago we installed a central document storage system (Microsoft’s SharePoint) and we began emailing links to one copy of a document in SharePoint instead of emailing the actual file.

These days we increasingly use cloud-based software to create documents. This makes sharing even easier, since the person with whom we are sharing doesn’t need to own and install the app that created the document.

While this solved our problems sharing documents while working alone at a desk, it didn’t make it easier to present and capture information in our meetings.

The Meeting Problem

In a meeting you typically print copies of minutes, plans, reports and other documents that present the information needed, and distribute a copy to everyone there.  Decisions and new action items are recorded in notes taken at the meeting. Perhaps someone assembles the notes and distributes them to the attendees later.

This is the same process we’ve used for the past 50 years or longer, and it was the process we used until about ten years ago. Now our meetings involve no paper at all: No printed minutes, no reports. No handwritten notes. I began this change by using the paperless method with one regular meeting, and it quickly spread throughout the company, because it worked so well.

Meeting Without Paper

Our product, SmartDraw, is software that people use to create diagrams. In 2007 we added automatic formatting to a number of diagram types, including mind maps. For the first time it became possible to create and edit a mind map as quickly as you can type. So instead of showing up to our weekly management meeting with a printed list of action items from last week, I decided to make a mind map of tasks assigned to each member of the team and display it using the projector we had in the conference room.Operating_Committee_MindMap

In real time, I deleted tasks that were completed and added new ones that we decided on. Everyone could see what they, and the rest of the team, were tasked with and how much progress had been made since last week. Communication was 100%. Capturing information and assigning new tasks happened instantly.

The SmartDraw file we used was stored in SharePoint and everyone had access to it, so they each had a copy of the action plan for the week. Next week we would open this file and update it at meeting.

Today we follow the same process but we use SmartDraw Cloud to create mind maps and share them. It’s just more convenient and we can more easily access the file from anywhere, even our phones.

Why a Mind Map?

So why not just project a Word document showing tasks in outline format? Like this:

Text Outline_Operating_Committee

We could have done this, but text outline is much more difficult to work with and view. Trying to drag items around from one person to another is tricky. A mind map is a more visual representation of an outline that is easier to edit and view than a text-based version.

We also display other document types in meetings: Excel tables and graphs, other SmartDraw diagrams like flowcharts and Gantt charts, but rarely Word documents.

What you need to make the paperless meeting work

  1. A high quality display in every conference room

You need either a large high resolution TV monitor or a good projector in your conference room so everyone can see the detail on the screen. You need a display resolution of at least 1600 x 1200.

  1. A permanent computer in every conference room.

Each conference room should have a good quality PC permanently installed and hooked up to the display. You don’t want to futz with someone’s laptop at the beginning of the meeting. Just log in and get started. It should also have a fast connection to the Internet.

  1. A wireless keyboard and mouse

Attach a wireless keyboard and mouse to the computer in the room. Have a set of each in each room. Change the batteries every month. Don’t wait until they are dead.

  1. Central storage for documents

Any document shown at the meeting should be accessible and shareable from the conference room PC. Store these documents in the cloud or in a behind-the-firewall common location like SharePoint.

  1. Mind Map software than can edit in real time

There are now other programs beside SmartDraw that can do this. Use the one that best fits your needs.

  1. A designated driver

We have found that this format works best when one of the meeting attendees operates the keyboard and edits the mind map. Sometimes this is the same person for the whole meeting and sometimes it works best to pass control among the participants if they will have the floor for a while. If someone else wants to say, add an item, they ask the driver to do it. “Let’s add an item for the PR campaign…” for example.

Paperless Mtg Floor Plan

The physical requirements, 1-3 are key. When we want to use this format for a meeting at a customer’s facility we are often amazed that many conference rooms don’t have an adequate computer setup.

The Benefits of a Paperless Meeting

While paperless meetings save paper and trees, the greatest benefit is in communication. Every participant can see exactly what is expected of the whole team, what has been accomplished and what decisions have been made in real time, and has a permanent record to review later. It’s made a significant contribution to the agility and success of our company and can do the same for yours.