What I learned about virtual conferences from AoM 2020 (click on title to read full post)

When AOM announced that the Vancouver meetings would be canceled and the conference would move online, I started thinking about all the things I would miss. But I also began thinking about some of the possible advantages. Maybe having everything online and so easily accessible would mean that I would spend more time in sessions and less time on the street and in coffee shops, thus enhancing my organization and management theory education. Maybe going online with everybody interacting through a flat screen would broaden the opportunity base for people who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend or, when in attendance, were often overlooked. And maybe the millions of miles not flown, and the thousands of hotel rooms not occupied, would lower the meeting’s carbon footprint so much that the coming climate-change Armageddon could be put off for another few minutes.

Clock in Gas Town, Vancouver, BC
Historic clock in Gas Town, Vancouver, BC, photo by lucy-claire-anEgzevL0Pk-unsplash

In this blog post, I want to share my observations about three aspects of the virtual meetings: content delivery, process management, and social relationships.

Content Delivery

Moving to a conference based on an Internet platform brought some unexpected pleasures. First, I enjoyed some excellent sessions that showed the promise of new ways of delivering content. In some of the asynchronous sessions, people crafted presentations using off-line video and attractive graphics that conveyed their ideas quickly and clearly. Some presenters had obviously visited their campus IT or communications departments to get help, as they minimized the number of slides and practiced what they are going to say before recording the presentation. In presentations as short as five minutes or as long as 15 minutes, they began with an anecdote or compelling example and then sustained our interest with a driving narrative that kept me glued to the screen. (I discovered an unobtrusive indicator of my engagement with the material when I realized I’d forgotten to eat lunch or take a bathroom break!)

The intimate connection we had with presenters who were sitting in their home offices and virtually just a few feet away from us delivered some unanticipated pleasures. Jeff Pfeffer and I were co-authors almost 35 years ago and we have both been so busy since then that we rarely see each other. Having Jeff right “in my face” in my den, lambasting the current state of business education (at least I think that’s what he was doing) was worth my getting up that day. The emotional punch his words always carry added to my enjoyment.

Second, the virtual conference also exposed and magnified some of the problems that have long plagued content delivery via oral presentations. In both the live and recorded sessions, I saw many missed opportunities. People used too many slides, had way too many words per slide, made sparing use of graphics, and clearly hadn’t practiced how to get their message across in the time allowed them. In that regard, some sessions and presenters simply reproduced the difficulties we’ve always had with presentations at meetings. Despite lots of helpful tips from the Academy, from session organizers, and all the instructional videos that you can find on the web, some presenters forgot that the central issue at a conference is to engage their audience. Luckily, the online format made it easy to switch out of the less engaging sessions and go in search of greener pastures.

On balance, I believe that the online format enhanced content delivery. Viewing presentations on a screen, with sharp graphics and clear audio, I was often drawn deeply into a scholar’s world. In my den, it was just me and the presenter. Admittedly, most of the time this was a one-way conversation, but for well-organized and crisply presented papers, I was hooked. I even occasionally took notes!

Process Management

After the first few sessions I viewed, it suddenly hit me: regardless of whether the session was synchronous or asynchronous, organizers had much more control over their sessions than I’ve ever seen in a convention center or hotel ballroom. Not only could organizers give instructions to presenters/panelists about number of PowerPoint slides and presentation length, there were also running a “Control Panel” that let them enforce their guidelines. Unlike typical conference presentations, a session chair could simply mute the microphone of an errant presenter and go on to the next paper. With all the audience members’ microphones muted, there was none of the cacophony of a classic Economics’ Department seminar, with interruptions beginning within a few minutes after the speaker starts. Instead, participants needed to raise their hands or put questions in the chat box if they wanted some airtime. I found this process extremely soothing.

From the perspective of inclusivity, organizers could distribute participation more equitably across the audience. Graduate students and junior faculty had an equal chance of getting their questions asked as did the more senior members of the audience. At least, in principle!

With this increased control, session organizers could try more innovative presentation strategies. For example, for my doctoral consortium presentation on writing strategies, I asked the students to view a video off-line and then the live session was just used for questions and answers. PhD students had access to the video more than a week in advance and so they came prepared with thoughtful questions they’d had time to reflect upon.

For the asynchronous sessions, organizers had plenty of time to view and edit their presenters’ submissions, if they wished. I’m not sure how often this occurred, but now that a precedent has been set, I’m hoping it will become more common in the future. No more surprises when a presenter discovers that a 30-page paper cannot be presented, word for word, table for table, in 15 minutes. If you could guarantee me that I would no longer have to sit through presentations with hundreds of words on PowerPoint slides and 10-point font numbers too small to read, I’d gladly give up presentations in person!

Social Relationships

In surveys after professional conferences, attendees almost always rate chances for creating or renewing social relationships as one of their top reasons for attending. In that respect, the virtual AOM was a major challenge. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how often I had opportunities to reconnect with old friends or meet new people.

Attendees at conferences often choose to attend sessions with friends and small groups, rather than going solo. In the hallways, people congregate to look over their programs (on their smart phones these days, rather than paper programs) and identify sessions at which they will meet. Virtual meetings make that extremely difficult. However, if you showed up early at the “live” sessions at this year’s AOM, you were often treated to video displays of all the other people entering the room. Immediately, you could see if there are others whom you knew.

Discovering that I had friends in the room turned out to be a double-edged sword. It gave me a chance to exchange pleasantries with them and to make a note to email or text them later. However, for those many sessions that were running a chat room alongside the session, it also meant opportunities to send private texts while the session was still running. Occasionally I found myself toggling back and forth between watching the presenter and sending a comment or question to my friends, in the chat box, and then losing track of both.

But one of the distinct pleasures of being at my keyboard while the session was underway was that I could instantly Google a reference or concept that I want more information on. I kept a running tab – – by bookmarking pages or making notes on paper – – of things I wanted to follow up. This led me down a few rabbit holes, but it meant I also came away from many sessions with a deeper understanding of the subject and leads to follow up on when I wanted to know more.

Conclusion

As a first-time experience, I would have to admit that there was much about the virtual AOM that I enjoyed. Regarding the issues I raised in my introduction, I would say that my education was enhanced. I was reminded of ideas that had lain dormant and I was introduced to new ideas that were easy to find in the online format. I truly enjoyed being able to jump in and out of sessions. I think the two-dimensional nature of participants’ involvement was a great equalizer. When managed well, I think this meant that organizers were able to give voice to many participants who otherwise might not have attended or might’ve been implicitly shut out of the discussion. By not having to spend money on traveling to the site and paying for meals and accommodations while there, I believe that many people participated who otherwise would have been found it prohibitively expensive. As for sustainability, I believe that the AoM’s carbon footprint was much reduced, compared to what would’ve happened if we’d all converged on Vancouver in August.

However, I missed the personal, the emotional, and visceral pleasure of the sights, sounds, and tastes of one of my favorite cities. I wouldn’t voluntarily replicate the experience. I hope the lessons learned will inform organizers of sessions for next year’s conference in Philadelphia. See you for lunch at Reading Market Terminal!

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