Increasingly, organizations and networks whose members are dispersed geographically – and who may be feeling budget pressures – are choosing to meet virtually as a less costly alternative to face-to-face. Meeting virtually can offer many advantages: you can meet more frequently and you can engage many more people at far less cost than face-to-face meetings.
But the challenge of moving to virtual meetings should not be underestimated – for organizations and networks that do not have a history of working together in this way, it is a major change in the culture of working together.
One World Inc. has been working over the last two years with the Ontario Network of CAPC and CPNP Projects – a network of 150 projects providing support for marginalized families and children. The Network includes projects spread across the entire province of Ontario, ranging from large urban centers in the south, to rural and northern communities, some quite isolated. For many years, the Network’s funder had supported an annual face-to-face training event that provided a valuable opportunity for staff from the projects to learn together and to get to know each other. These events were highly valued by the project staff. Unfortunately, the funder decided these in-person events could no longer be supported because of budget pressures, so the Network was forced to consider virtual alternatives.
The first step in this process was the selection of an appropriate service or “platform” for supporting the virtual meetings. There are a great many options to choose from, so how do you choose the “right” one for your group? Consider the following:
- “Tech savvy-ness”: A really basic question is the level of “tech savvy-ness” of the participants in your organization or network. If you have a group that is very comfortable with technology and uses it on a regular basis, then moving to a virtual platform might be a relatively minor transition. In many not-for-profits, however, our experience has been that relatively few participants are “into” technology, and there is reluctance – sometimes even a level of fear – associated with the introduction of new technology. In addition, many of these organizations have little or no on-site tech support. In this case, “ease of use” becomes the overriding consideration for which platform to choose.
- Internet connectivity: Not all participants may have access to equal levels of internet connectivity. We found that while urban projects in our Network could access high-speed broadband connections, a few rural projects still used dial-up service. The platform you choose must be must be compatible with all levels of connectivity in your organization or network.
- Hardware compatability: Similarly, different participants may use different kinds of machines. This is particularly relevant in a network or coalition where there are no common standards of technology. In some cases, participants cannot change the software on the machines they use (either because they do not know how to do this, or organizational policy prohibits them from doing so). In this case, the best platform is one that does not require download and installation of software.
- Number of participants and type of meetings: How many participants do you expect will be using the platform at one time? Different plans allow for different numbers of participants. And what kind of sessions will you be organizing – will they mainly be training or educational sessions for larger groups or people, or “business meetings” with smaller numbers? Depending on the main type of meeting you will be holding, you may wish to consider different features.
- Features: Different platforms are outfitted with different features. The optimal platform is not necessarily the one with the most features, but the one that is easiest to use, and has the features that are the most useful. Some of the features we have found to be useful are:
- Ability to “raise a hand” for participants to signal their desire to ask a question;
- Chat feature to allow comments/questions to be posted during a webinar;
- Video conferencing to allow participants to see the speaker and other participants (although this capability takes up a lot of bandwidth, so might not be possible for participants with slow Internet).
- Ability to share and post files, video, etc.
- A real-time “polling” feature that allows the speaker to poll participants on specific questions. This was especially useful for quickly soliciting broad feedback from the group on specific questions;
- Ability to record sessions so that people who could not participate in real time could watch and listen to the session later;
- Ease of use: Since participants’ comfort and skill level with technology will vary, the online platform should be intuitive and easy to navigate;
- Reliability and Tech support: The provider of the platform should have a reputation for providing reliable service. Ask which platforms your friends and colleagues are using and what their experience has been. In addition, the platform provider should have easily accessible, free tech support so participants that run into problems are not left “hanging” when they try to connect to a webinar.One of the best strategies to help you in choosing a platform is to recruit a group of “testers” from among your participants and organize a “test drive” of several platforms. The tester group should include people with varying levels of comfort and experience with technology to represent a cross-section of your participants. The feedback you get from this kind of testing can be invaluable.
The move to virtual meetings is an important one for any organization or network, and the process for moving to a virtual platform needs to be carefully thought through and supported for it to be a positive experience. The choice of a virtual meeting platform is an important one, especially since this is not the kind of decision you are likely to change frequently – you will want your participants to achieve a high level of comfort with a particular platform to encourage its use.