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Will Artificial Intelligence Bring an End to Stupid Meetings?

oblongMuch of the dialogue around AI has focused on the impact on the individual, especially how the automation of routine tasks may result in job losses and job redefinition. But what about teams? What influence will AI have when the knowledge worker must become a knowledge sharer and collaborate with others?

What does AI mean for meetings?

We have all experienced the conflict and distraction of meetings pulling us away from actual work. Think of the meetings we dread the most, those recurring status meetings where we are passive consumers of information or are only meaningful contributors for a fraction of the time. We are already beginning to see teams using workstream collaboration tools like Slack as a replacement for status meetings and even agile standups. It is easy to imagine how bots could further enhance these sorts of discussions by automating or suggesting work summaries, even intelligently tracking or recalling conversation threads over time, and recommending relevant actions. The status meeting that we know and loathe today could be displaced entirely by AI assisted messaging.

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If AI can help eliminate this entire class of meetings, what remains? What remains are those essential meetings that require not just conversation, but actual collaboration, where teams must actively work together to address an issue that is larger than a single individual’s knowledge or expertise. When general team communication and coordination can happen outside of meetings, the kinds of meetings that will persist will be those where teams must deal with complex issues and engage in activities where AI does not (yet) excel: real-time, non-routine, cognitive tasks.

These kinds of meetings are often tied to value creation or efficiency – introducing new products or services, addressing and optimizing business processes, or responding to non-routine customer or audience needs. These are the meetings where time to outcome is critical, but the technical mechanics of meetings today often stand in our way.

We have all experienced it. If you endure the hassle of scheduling a meeting, you then face the wasted minutes as everyone struggles to connect, and then there’s the pain of not having the right information you need in the meeting and the whole cycle starts all over again. Microsoft and others are banking on the promise of AI to make it easier to schedule, join, find documents, and participate in meetings. With natural language processing and computer vision, the meeting will “know” who we are and what we are saying. It will know what we are working on and make it easy to access it in the meeting. It certainly looks like a beautiful tomorrow, but then what?

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We need AI and UI Innovation

To help teams perform at their best, advancements in AI for meetings must happen in tandem with advancements in the UI for meetings. If you think of a meeting as a kind of information device for the exchange of knowledge, then the user interface for meetings includes all of the devices and screens we interact with in order to share information with one another. New AI’s will help to ease and accelerate how we, and our work, are present in the meeting, but it is new UIs that will improve how we see and share our work in the meeting.

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For many meetings, the UI paradigm has not changed significantly from the days of viewgraphs and this paradigm is largely responsible for why the meeting experience – once everyone is scheduled and connected – continues to suffer. The dominant experience in meetings today is still centered around one individual broadcasting information to others. Someone may be swiping through a presentation in front of a large touchscreen instead of speaking from behind a slide projector, but the workflow is the same: one person, one machine, one stream at a time.

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Collaboration Bottlenecks

This visual and participatory bottleneck of a single individual presenting a single piece of content at a time is inefficient and potentially unengaging. It creates passive audiences and discourages the participation of others. The flow of information, especially, visual information, is constricted, depriving a team of adequate context created through the consideration of multiple sources of information and expertise. The hassles, and “switching costs” of transitioning presentation control from one team member to another causes interruptions that take time and disrupt the development of insights. Even if transitions can be streamlined, serialized presentations encumber meeting participants with more cognitive overhead, requiring more brainpower to remember and recall key information that is no longer visible.

How do we remove the bottleneck? We need meeting UIs that cater not to a single presenter but to multiple participants, where everyone can equally share and see each other’s work, not sequentially, but simultaneously.

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A New Meeting UI

Think of the benefits so many enjoy at desks with widescreen displays or dual monitor configurations. In these visual environments, we can comfortably spread our work across that large digital canvas so we can easily multi-task and compare, contrast, and cross-reference multiple streams of content from different documents and applications at once. That’s the UI we need for meetings, but one magnified to room-scale and group-scale to accommodate control and contribution from multiple-users and even multiple locations, simultaneously.

It will be a long time before AI has developed to the point where it can make meetings smarter, shorter, or less frequent, though we’re seeing now that it can make meetings easier to manage and start. Once we’re in the meeting and we must rely on each other, and not AI, to share and create knowledge, it is UI that is needed to support and encourage new ways of working and that can help make useless meetings a thing of the past. Just as a well-trained bot holds the eventual promise of combining multiple source materials to arrive at probability recommendations for the team, with the right visual UI we as collaborators can generate better insights and outcomes right now.

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  2. […] to a recent Accenture report on AI redefining the workforce management in the future, AI-assisted analytics, simulation, and hypothesis testing would help managers turn […]

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