Badly Needed: Research Into Meetings In Organizations

5 December 2006 at 10:35 am 10 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

Ahhhh! Today was my last day as member of the Academic Council (or Senate) of the Copenhagen Business School. As Denmark has the most undemocratic university legislation in the world (with the possible exception of North Korea) and the whole university system is socialized, all decision-making power is in actuality concentrated in the hands of the President and the Dean. This means that bodies such as the Academic Council have nada real decision-making competence.  Knowing this, the members should be expected to get the meeting done as quick as possible, and go back to serious business, that is, research and teaching. Not so! One endless and essentially pointless debate followed another. 

Which makes me wonder: Given that incredible amounts of time in organizations, public as well as private,  and often involving absolute key employees, are spent in meetings, why do we see so very little serious (non-pomo) academic research into the phenomenon of meetings in organizations?

Joseph Stiglitz somewhere notes that after being tortured with one time-wasting meeting after another, he suggested to his Dean that he (the Dean) had a special clock designed which instead of showing the hours would show the direct money costs of the meeting (salaries per time unit x members in the meeting). The Dean reportedly wasn’t amused.

We have an economic theory of committees (Sah and — Stiglitz!), but that is mainly concerned with the quality of decisions. In contrast, there don’t seem to be any attempts to estimate the real resource costs of meetings in organizations, their antecedents and their performance effects. Hmmm, perhaps it is time to found my own sub-field in social science. ;-)

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Institutions.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Donald A. Coffin  |  5 December 2006 at 11:27 am

    My own experience is that the discussion expands to fill the time scheduled for the meeting (wait…didn’t someone already have this insight? C. Northcote Parkinson, as I recall.) WHY this is the case is more obscure. So maybe one possible solution to time-wasting meetings is to schedule less time for them. So the 1 PM to 3 PM meeting becomes a 1 PM to 1:30 PM meeting.

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  5 December 2006 at 12:21 pm

    Certainly for some of our colleagues, active participation in such meetings is a form of consumption. This implies that those who participate the most will be those with the lowest opportunity costs, ceteris paribus. I haven’t done the empirical research myself, but anecdotal evidence strongly supports such an explanation. :-)

  • 3. Bo  |  6 December 2006 at 1:41 pm

    I am happy to report that I have served on two committees this year and BOTH managed to a) reduce the number of meetings from the year before and b) reduce the actual meeting time significantly. At our meeting last week we managed to get business done in about half the alotted time. WHY? Because all of the members of this particular committee came well prepared and non of us saw this committee as a social event – hence we reduced the small talk to a minimum, instituted a vote rather than a lengthy discussion (this vote showed that we all agreed on the way forward – hence no need to discuss it in more detail) and simply left when business was done! Everyone left the meeting feeling great – we accomplished what we wanted to – and without time pressure AND we even had time to spare.

    I suggest that this kind of experience may actually leave positive spill-over effects from meetings – it certainly left me in a good an productive mood and positively impacted the rest of my day! More research is needed!

  • 4. Chihmao Hsieh  |  7 December 2006 at 2:23 pm

    > why do we see so very little serious
    > (non-pomo) academic research into
    > the phenomenon of meetings in
    > organizations?

    To me, the answer to the above inquiry may be straightforward, at least from the strategy perspective.

    Much of strategic organization is based on the management of conflict, which can be separated into upfront investments in conflict prevention and ongoing investments in conflict resolution. Organizational forms are selected whereby marginal benefits from either of these types of investments equate. Due to the relative generality typical of mechanisms available for preventing conflicts, the efficient organizational form does not relate to high levels of conflict resolution.

    Conflicts are resolved via coordination, which requires communication of some sort. Communication can take place via a variety of channels, e.g. email, voice-mail, videoconferencing, and face-to-face meetings. When conflict resolution needs are low, email, voice-mail, and other ‘low richness’ communication channels are more efficient than face-to-face meetings. Most notably, face-to-face meetings require shared idiosyncratic investments in both time and place whereas all other communication channels do not. The investment in shared place is particularly costly, insofar that we humans only have one face that can only stay in one very specific location.

    The upshot is that efficient organization relates to low degrees of conflict resolution, where face-to-face meetings would be ill-prescribed.

  • 5. Bo Nielsen  |  7 December 2006 at 6:01 pm

    So – we simply create efficient organizations and all conflicts go away (and with them the need for meetings)? Or is it the other way around – we reduce conflict so that our organizations become more efficient – in which case the need for meetings would increase…

  • 6. Eric H  |  7 December 2006 at 11:02 pm

    Wouldn’t you want to distinguish between the different types of meetings? It seems to me that the meetings I attend (ugh, and call) have different purposes. Our weekly staff meeting is a way that we can quickly coordinate a wide variety of activities (giving help, notifying of problems coming up, requesting help), but other meetings are a round table discussion of what-ifs or project updates. The staff meetings have gotten shorter – I have actually been tracking minutes/person and “quants” of information/minute, and both improved as we met more regularly, even though attendance has gone up (shorter + more dense->higher likelihood of getting something and less dead time?). They move roughly as Bo describes them above – everyone is prepared, we exchange information and leave. But round tables and project updates seem to waste more time every time we meet. Is it really necessary to recap the budget and timeline?

  • 7. Bjorn  |  8 December 2006 at 6:44 am

    An article in Journal of Applied Psychology (no. 1, 2001) looks at one aspect of meetings in organizations. Here is the abstract:

    “Not Another Meeting!” Are Meeting Time Demands Related to Employee Well-Being?

    Using an interruptions framework, this article proposes and tests a set of hypotheses concerning the relationship of meeting time demands with job attitudes and well-being (JAWB). Two Internet surveys were administered to employees who worked 35 hr or more per week. Study 1 examined prescheduled meetings attended in a typical week (N=676), whereas Study 2 investigated prescheduled meetings attended during the current day (N=304). As proposed, the relationship between meeting time demands and JAWB was moderated by task interdependence, meeting experience quality, and accomplishment striving. However, results were somewhat dependent on the time frame of a study and the operational definition used for meeting time demands. Furthermore, perceived meeting effectiveness was found to have a strong, direct relationship with JAWB. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2006 APA, all rights reserved)

    Authors: Rogelberg, Steven G.; Leach, Desmond J.; Warr, Peter B.; Burnfield, Jennifer L.

  • 8. Chihmao Hsieh  |  11 December 2006 at 1:53 am

    > So – we simply create efficient organizations and all conflicts go
    > away (and with them the need for meetings)? Or is it the other way
    > around – we reduce conflict so that our organizations become more
    > efficient – in which case the need for meetings would increase…

    If I read this correctly, the intent is to point out that when organizations become more efficient, their standards become higher, and when standards become higher, organizations become sensitive to ‘disturbances’ that in the past would not have required conflict resolution. Ergo, more meetings.

    Such relationships amongst performance, satisfaction, and organizational response are highlighted in Cyert and March, but the short answer is that standards don’t necessarily need to become higher merely due to improved organizational performance.

  • 9. sozlog  |  30 December 2006 at 7:54 pm

    One might also add intercultural comparisons on meeting practices within organizations – e.g. on what occasions meetings are held, who is “invited” or required to come, what are typical processes in meetings and their (real and presumed) function for the organization etc.

  • 10. Ib Ravn  |  8 December 2007 at 12:11 am

    My group at Learning Lab Denmark (www.dpu.dk/fv) is in fact doing research on meetings, as well as develping and testing tools for more efficient meetings. One such tool is having a facilitator run the meeting on behalf of everyone present–a role curiously not mentioned in any of the comments to Nicolai’s original post.

    We are currently doing a intervention project with a bank, a municipality and a government agency in which 50 managers from each organization are being trained in meeting facilitation; we measure their employees’ evaluations of their meetings pre- and post-intervention. Results are not yet in, but see the http://www.dpu.dk/fv for various texts.

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