Experiences With an Interactive Electronic Meeting Facility

N. S. Davids

Honeywell Information Systems Inc. P.O. Box 8000 Phoenix, AZ 85066


The introduction of an interactive electronic meeting facility, called Forum, within Honeywell's Large Information Systems Division (LISD), a large multi-national organization, has had profound effects. The environment set up by Forum closely mimics that of a face-to-face meeting. The user interface, based on a TTY-style terminal, allows the users to concentrate on the content of the meeting instead of on the interface or the computer. Forum is briefly described, and LISD's experiences, both good and bad, are discussed.


One of the primary tasks of an individual employed by an organization is to communicate with other members of that organization. The larger the organization and the more widely distributed geographically it is, the more difficult that task becomes. The hardest form of communication to establish is the face-to-face meeting. Its difficulty increases with the number of people who attend the meeting and with the distance they must travel to get to the meeting's location. For a computerized or electronic meeting facility to be successful it must be as effective and easy to use as attending a face-to-face meeting, while eliminating or reducing the difficulties that are inherent in setting up and attending such meetings.

An electronic meeting facility called Forum has been in use within Honeywell's Large Information Systems Division (LISD) for several years. Installed on the Multics system development machine, it has proven a valuable alternative to the face-to-face meeting by the most exacting criterion -- the spontaneous and widespread use of the facility by the user community. However, as with any new tool, its users have had to learn how to use it effectively and how not to misuse it.

This paper is divided into six sections. Section 1 is a brief description of the most important features of Forum. Section 2 discusses the advantages we have found in using Forum over face-to-face meetings. Section 3 covers the problems created by Forum and user responses to those problems. Section 4 presents some further observations on the effects of the use of Forum. Section 5 presents some data about the users and their use of the facility. Section 6 contains a summary.

Forum Features

The environment set up by Forum closely mimics that of a face-to-face meeting. However, since participants in a meeting attend at their own convenience, communication is via the meeting's minutes, which are maintained by Forum. An attendee will go to a meeting, read that part of the minutes that he or she has not yet seen, possibly refer back to other parts of the minutes and then enter his/her own comments into the minutes.

Forum is a powerful and complex tool. It includes many commands which, while making the system flexible and convenient for the expert, are not necessary for effective use of the system. Described here are those aspects which have had the greatest impact in terms of user acceptance.

User Interface

Forum uses the standard Multics subsystem environment which provides a TTY-style interface. The subsystem environment allows the experienced user the flexibility to tailor the interface according to his/her likes and dislikes, while giving the inexperienced user (of which there are many) a usable interface to work with. It also allows an experienced user to easily tailor a simple interface for a group of inexperienced users.

Meeting Chairman

Each meeting has a chairman, usually the person who created the meeting. The chairman is principally responsible for controlling the discussions in a meeting and granting and revoking access to the meeting. He or she may also delete transactions from the meeting's minutes.


A Multics user is identified by a person identifier and a project identifier. Access to meetings may be granted or denied based on a user's person or project identifier. In addition, it is possible to classify a user as read-only. If security is no problem, a meeting may be declared "public" Any user registered on the system may attend a public meeting.

Attending a Meeting

A meeting may be attended by anyone with the proper access.

Meeting Minutes

Each time a person "talks" in a meeting a transaction is entered into the meeting's minutes. This transaction is assigned a transaction identifier and records the speaker's person and project identifiers, the time the transaction was entered, and the text of what the speaker said. The minutes form a permanent record (subject to deletion by the chairman) of everything that anybody ever said. Transactions can be linked to form chains covering particular topics, allowing readers to follow individual topics easily.

Notification of a New Transaction

If a user is attending a meeting when a transaction is entered by someone else, a message informing him/her of the new transaction is sent. It is also possible for a user to instruct Forum to notify him/her (via the Multics mail facility) whenever a transaction is entered into any of a previously selected set of meetings.

Entering New Transactions

Transactions are entered via "talk" and "reply" requests. A reply links the transaction being entered to the current transaction (building upon the chain) while the talk request starts a new chain. Any of the standard Multics text editors can be used for entering a transaction.

Displaying a Transaction

Transactions may be displayed on a terminal for online perusal, or written to a file to be looked at later. The transactions to be displayed are defined via a transaction specification, which is quite flexible. Examples of transactions that can be displayed are:

Advantages of Forum

The advantages of using Forum can be divided into two classes. The first class consists of a reduction or elimination of some of the problems inherent in face-to-face meeting. The second class has evolved from the attendees' use of Forum as an educational tool.

Meeting Minutes

Minutes may or may not be kept during a face-to-face meeting; if they are kept, the person taking them is usually too busy to participate in the discussion. Minutes taken by hand are also subject to error caused by misunderstanding, and {unless entered onto a computer system) they must be visually searched to look up historical references. As mentioned above, Forum maintains a complete and accurate set of minutes which is easily searched and displayed.


Perhaps the biggest problem with setting up a face-to-face meeting is finding a time when all the participants will be simultaneously available. Forum has solved this problem by eliminating the need for participants to attend the meeting at the same time. With Forum, participants attend the meetings at their convenience. The advantages are manifold; among them are the ability to attend a meeting without having to interrupt other activities and the ability to take the time to carefully consider new transactions before responding. Since there are no scheduling constraints, anyone who is interested in a meeting's topic and has access to the meeting may attend.

The original implementation of Forum had a real-time-conferencing facility which provided for the simultaneous display of new transactions on the terminals or all the people currently attending the meeting. It managed the I/O to prevent multiple people from appearing to enter transactions simultaneously while still allowing people to enter transactions when they wished. This facility was removed when it was realized that people were not simultaneously attending meetings. The only remnant of this feature is the notify capability previously mentioned.

Travel to the meeting

Travel is, of course, eliminated. People on different continents attend the same meeting just as easily as people in the same building. The increase in attendance allows many more viewpoints on the issues to be advanced and discussed. As members of a multi-national organization, we have found this to be invaluable.

The Ability to Broadcast Questions

Several public meetings have been set up to allow attendees to broadcast questions, which are then answered by anyone with knowledge on the subject. Often the questioner does not know who to ask, and therefore the traditional methods of phoning someone or using the system's electronic mail facility will not work. Many people consider attendance at these meetings to be a valuable learning experience; even if they never ask or answer a question, they see the questions and answers.

Special-Interest Meetings

Special-interest meetings cover topics which do not have the priority for face-to-face meetings or travel, and hence without Forum would not be discussed by a wide base of people. Nevertheless the topics discussed have a direct or indirect effect upon the attendees' work responsibilities. Many such meetings exist; among them are meetings on such topics as human factors, quality assurance, and standards.

New Problems and User Responses

Any new tool does more than solve the problems it was created to solve; it creates new problems. Forum has been no exception. As with advantages, there are two classes of problems. The first class consists of problems caused by the widespread use of the facility; i.e., it is used by many people for many types of meetings. The second class of problems may be broadly characterized as caused by a lack of personal interaction between the attendees of a meeting. From the point of view of actually using the facility the second class of problems is the most severe, since it hampers effective communication. The user community is in the process of evolving usage conventions to solve some of these problems.

Proliferation of Meetings

Because it is so easy to create meetings, people have had a tendency to create a meeting whenever a new topic comes up. For example one project has four (development, security, testing and restructuring) semi-public meetings. People interested in this project must belong to all four meetings.

Overlapping of Meetings

On occasion someone has created a new meeting covering a topic that is already covered by an existing meeting.

In response to this a public "meetings directory" meeting has been established. Before anyone creates a new meeting he or she searches this meeting to be sure of not duplicating an already existing meeting. After the meeting is created it is announced in the meetings directory meeting by giving its name, location, purpose and access criteria.

Another problem is that discussions in one meeting frequently are pertinent to other meetings as well. An example is a discussion in the menu-management meeting dealing with menu formatting, which is also in the realm of the human-factors meeting.

The usual response is for people in the human-factors meeting to "sit in" on the menu-manager meeting until the discussion moves on to some other topic and then to check back periodically.

Time Spent in Meetings

Because it is so easy to attend meetings it is also easy to spend a great deal or time attending meetings.

Users have had to learn how to manage their own resources, attending new meetings and leaving old ones as topics change. Many users have a set of core meetings which they attend frequently, and a set of secondary meetings which they attend as time permits.

Control of Proprietary Information

While the facility has the capability of restricting meeting attendance, we have had problems with employees discussing proprietary information in a public or semi-public meeting (many non-LISD people are registered on the system).

Participants must be continually aware of who may be attending meetings. Our only defense is for the chairman to delete inappropriate transactions as soon as he/she becomes aware of them.

In addition, since the minutes are available to everyone with access to the meeting, the chairman must be cognizant of any sensitive information that was discussed in the past before granting access to new individuals.

Other possible solutions to this problem, i.e., do not allow public meetings and do not allow meetings with both LISD and non-LISD employees, were rejected. It was decided that educating LISD participants and placing the burden of watching for and deleting inappropriate transactions on the chairman were better solutions than shutting down the useful exchange between these two groups of people.

Limited Bandwidth of Expression

In a face-to-face meeting speakers use a plethora of devices to augment what they are saying, i.e., body language (smiles, shrugs, hand motions), and tone of voice. These enable the speaker to communicate scathing sarcasm or take the sting out of a rebuttal to a previous comment. These devices are not available when using Forum. Unfortunately "speakers" (people entering transactions) often forget that fact when they are typing a reply. The result is that sarcasm has been taken as a completely serious comment and a simple rebuttal as a personal attack.

There are several techniques which seem to be in use for overcoming this problem. In order to emphasize a statement it is frequently PUT ALL IN CAPS. If a speaker is agitated enough he may want to shout by U*S*I*N*G C*A*P*S A*N*D S*T*A*R*S. The user community has also invented "flame mode." This mode, which is announced with such phrases as "[begin flame mode]" or "<flame on>, " indicates that the speaker is unusually agitated and is about to sound off about something.

It is also not uncommon to see someone apologizing, and in general people appear to be more polite when using Forum than they are in person.

Ambiguous Statements

In one respect the use of Forum has cut down on misunderstandings caused by ambiguous statements. First, people no longer have to rely on their memories, which has a habit of clearing up ambiguities by creating its own set of needed details. Also people can take the time to carefully compose their replies. When an ambiguous statement does occur in a transaction it seems to have a larger impact than the same statement in a face-to-face meeting. In a face-to-face meeting ambiguities can be resolved on the spot, however with Forum, resolution may take longer since the attendees are probably not attending the meeting at the same time. Add to this a third person who professes to know what the first speaker actually meant, and the confusion increases still more.

Attendees consider it the responsibility of the speaker to make him- or herself understood; he/she must therefore attend the meeting frequently to follow the conversation and correct any misunderstandings. In addition we have found that participants are much more likely to understand an ambiguous transaction or realize that their interpretation is incorrect (George knows better than that; I wonder what he really means) when it is from someone they know. The best mechanism for this is to have a face-to-face meeting from time to time.

Diversity of the Attendees

Many meetings are attended by a large number of individuals with diverse backgrounds; each has his/her own level of expertise on the topic or topics being discussed. This has made it very difficult to discuss issues in a manner meaningful to all the attendees.

While it is possible to restrict the attendees of a meeting to those with the same level of expertise, it has not been done. The level of expertise needed for a meeting is sometimes placed in the announcement in the meetings directory meeting, however the discussion makes it apparent whether an attendee is out of his/her depth or not. Users who attend meetings without the required level of expertise do so at their own risk; i.e., they may not understand everything being said. Attendance in these meetings is an excellent way for the user to increase and broaden his/her expertise, and he/she is in no way prohibited from asking questions. It should be pointed out that a required level of expertise does not imply technical expertise; the marketing and management meetings require quite different types of expertise.

Other Observations

The use of Forum has generated some phenomena that cannot be classified as either advantages or disadvantages.

Electronic Persona

There are some people who seem to go through a personality change when they use the facility. Their normal style of communicating with people changes. This new personality is their "electronic persona." I conjecture that the change is caused in part by one or more of the following reasons. First, the speaker has the opportunity to address a large number of people. Second, since the speaker is just typing on a terminal and not standing in front of a group, the inhibitions felt when addressing a group may not be present. Third Forum provides a degree of anonymity, since most attendees will not know the speaker or where he/she is located. There are people who normally do not contribute much in a face-to-face meeting, but are very active and productive in Forum meetings. There are also people who are more disruptive when using Forum than they are in a face-to-face meeting.

General Interest Meeting

An unexpected use of Forum has been the general interest meeting. These meetings range from a Bulletin board, where just about any topic may be raised, to meetings about art, book reviews, and science fiction. The proliferation of these meetings seems to some (including some users of Forum) to be a problem; after all people are supposed to be working, not wasting time and valuable computer resources in non-productive activities. However, people do not typically spend the entire work day working. They talk to the people in adjacent offices and call friends on the phone to discuss any and all aspects of society. Thus these electronic meetings do not actually distract people from doing their job; they merely make the conversations more visible.

In the opinion of the author (and others) these meetings have had one very important effect. They have increased the community that the attendee belongs to. The community a person belongs to depends on whom he communicates with. By communicating with more people his community expands. This increases effective communication on work-related issues and also reduces the them-vs-us feelings that different projects or divisions can have.

Only time and careful analysis will tell whether the benefits gained from these meetings is worth the cost of the resources they use. The author's subjective opinion is that these meetings are worth their cost.

Some Usage Characteristics

A brief questionnaire was sent out to 494 users of the facility, of those, 91 were returned in various stages of completion. The information gathered indicates the following about the users and their meetings.


Over all Forum has saved Honeywell's Large Information System Division a great deal of time and money, reducing travel and scheduling problems while providing, accurate and easily searchable minutes. It has also proven to be an excellent educational tool. It is not, however, a panacea; problems such as meeting proliferation do exist. In addition, the effects of ambiguities in transactions seems to be worse than ambiguities in a facie-to-face meeting, and the facility cannot support the same bandwidth of expression that exists in a face-to-face meeting. Solutions to some of these problems are evolving, but the need for face-to-face meetings has not been completely eliminated. From time to time, people need to be reminded that they are dealing with other people and not with words on a terminal.

Second Annual Phoenix Conference on Computers and Communications, 1983

"This material is presented to ensure dissemination of scholarly and technical work. Copyright and all rights therein are retained by authors or by other copyright holders. All persons copying this information are expected to adhere to the terms and constraints invoked by each author's copyright. In most cases, these works may not be reposted without the explicit permission of the copyright holder."