Electronic Conferencing in Preparation For The
1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
The preparations for the upcoming United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in June 1992 in Brazil offer a unique opportunity for effective and creative use of electronic conferencing as a vehicle through which a broad based coalition of independent organizations and people can contribute to the design and implementation of foundations for a sustainable common future -- locally, regionally, nationally and globally.
The magnitude and inter-relatedness of so many of the topics that will be touched on in 1992; the matrix of cross-cutting issues between environment and development concerns; and the expected participation of an unprecedented number and diversity of non-government organizations from around the world in national and transnational preparatory meetings and conferences present a challenge to information and communication methodology, a challenge to which electronic conferencing can make a major contribution.
For most of us, participation in an electronic conference is a fairly new experience. Indeed, there may well be many participants for whom this is the first such conference you have been involved in. There may also be those whose previous experience in this medium has been disappointing. For to date, there are many more people who have talked about how electronic conferencing is a remarkably powerful medium than there are those who have discovered how to tap into those powers.
However, the importance of the issues of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development is too great for us to allow our selves to be resigned to the possibility that this conference will be a disappointment.
As we engage in this process, we need to recognize that electronic conferencing is not quite like any other form of communication. Most of us are much more used to talking than to writing, and when we do write, it is not generally in a public forum. Yet, this is an electronic "conference", and any of us who has participated in a conference or two knows that the most creative work at a conference often takes place in small, informal gatherings between sessions, and in one-on-one conversations.
As electronic conferencing begins to come of age, we are discovering many parallels between electronic conferencing and conventional conferences and meetings. And just as there are structures and processes appropriate for different kinds of meetings, so there are for electronic conferences. And I have become increasingly aware of the importance of nurturing the kind of process and structure that can make electronic conferencing effective.
Some meetings have a clear agenda, and need a chair who keeps the discussion to the point, and who can facilitate movement towards decision making and action. Other meetings call for brainstorming, and the facilitator's task is to foster an unimpeded flow of ideas, setting virtually no limits on what is expressed.
At other times, the most important task at a meeting is to focus on the process by which the participants are working together, especially if there are areas in which there appears to be sharp disagreement, or the requisite actions are not forthcoming.
Frequently, issues that are raised in meetings call for a separate meeting of a subcommittee that then needs to define its own meeting space and agenda and establish a process and structure appropriate for the tasks it has taken on. The need for subcommittees can easily arise when there are many pressing topics and a growing number of people in the meeting, making it hard to concentrate on any one topic.
As in a "real-time" or conventional conference, it is essential to recognize the value of informal conversations with other conference participants on a one-to-one basis. It may often make more sense to send a brief, informal note directly to the writer of a message, sharing you personal reactions to what she or he has written, than it does to post your comments publicly as a response in the conference. And if you are still developing confidence in your electronic conferencing skills, it is often easier to send the informal note, perhaps with a copy to a couple of other people who you think might be interested in what you have to say.
And certain conversations, valuable though they may be to the overall process and to the parties involved, don't really belong in the public part of the conference, and are best expressed in the form of electronic mail directly between the two or more participants. However, often these informal electronic conversations are a very fertile ground for developing ideas, and we need to remember to share those concerns and ideas that are pertinent to the broader forum.
While there are many variations of meetings, and of the manner in which they are best conducted, there are some common considerations in all meetings. In essence, they amount to guidelines for participation -- or communications protocol, to use a more formal phrase. A separate topic is being set up as a forum for the development of appropriate protocol, however, some essential guidelines may be worthy of mention here:
b. Communicate clearly & simply
c. Speak to one point at a time
d. Avoid unnecessary repetition
e. Avoid dominating discussions
f. Pay attention to process
My goal as a facilitator is to find ways to create space within this electronic conference so that whatever types of meetings are needed can take place. This will almost certainly mean that we will have to reorganize the conference from time to time. When discussion on a given issue reaches a critical mass, we will likely need to establish a "subcommittee" conference, perhaps with a mechanism for reporting back to the main conference.
It will be much easier for me to have a feel of how the conference is working -- and thus to get sound guidance as to what restructuring is necessary -- if I hear directly from you as to what is working and what is not about the conference. I have set aside a topic for discussion of process issues, and for observations and reflections on the dynamics of the conference, and I welcome responses to that topic, or notes sent directly to me.
None of the comments that I made earlier on the value of developing electronic mail conversations with other participants should be taken as a discouragement of direct participation in the conference. Rather it is meant to offer encouragement to those are not yet ready to post messages directly to the conference, to acknowledge the value of informal participation, as well as to recognize that participating through the electronic mail conversations is a valuable way of learning to engage in electronic conferencing.
Effective participation from a broad based, diverse group of people and organizations is essential to the success of this conference, and to the contribution of the independent sector to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. For those who have not previously participated in electronic conferences, or used electronic mail, it may initially seem to be a cumbersome process. But don't hesitate to ask for help; there are many people who are eager to give a helping hand to someone who is ready to take a step towards participating in this process.
I look forward to working with each of you between now and 1992, and beyond, to help this conference -- and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development -- realize its potential contribution to the challenge of healing the earth and healing our selves.
In the Light
Robert (rpollard on EcoNet)
This introduction to electronic conferencing is posted on the en.unced.general conference on EcoNet. To find out more about how to get onto EcoNet, so you can begin to participate in this process, call EcoNet at (415) 923-0900, or Robert Pollard at (301) 243-2131.
Web page updated: 2002.02.08