Meeting efficiency could be the oxymoron of the decade. People have a hard time managing the lists of results and action item they create in meetings. It's all too common for a person to walk out of a meeting with a set of notes entirely different from the set taken by a coworker who sat through the same meeting. Their shared memory of the meeting is disjointed. Everyone is on a different page.
Of course, there are all sorts of groupware solutions that promise to make meetings and follow-up more effective. Many of these concepts fail because people don't want complicated project-management style rigor -- they just want simple solutions.
From my perspective, some of the best ways to make meetings more effective don't reengineer the meeting process; they just improve the way people take notes. Here's where electronic whiteboards can help.
Until recently, an electronic whiteboard was a pricey and bulky office addition. Electronic whiteboards generally cost about $3,000 to $5,000 and required a screen on a rolling stand to create an electronic version of the whiteboard. The company that installed the whiteboard usually needed to redesign the entire meeting room, and the whiteboard beame just a small portion of the final bill.
Now there's a new breed of low-cost whiteboard products. Mimio, from Virtual Ink Corporation, and eBeam, from Electronics for Imaging, turn any office whiteboard into an electronic collaboration tool. Priced at about $500 each, these units could provide a low-cost, high-payback solution.
Mimio, the flagship product of Virtual Ink Corporation, attaches to any whiteboard with small suction cups. A cable is attached to the bottom of the device and connects into the serial or USB ports of a desktop or notebook PC. It comes with four electronic pen holders -- red, blue, green, and black -- into which you insert your regular dry-erase pens (a starter kit of pens is even included with the package). You also need to install the software with which the Mimio device communicate with your PC.
To use the device, you simply launch the Mimio application and start writing on your whiteboard. As you write, the information is translated to the PC screen, in color and in realtime. If you make a mistake, you can use the Mimio eraser, which lets you simultaneously erase a portion of the whiteboard and the corresponding section of the computer screen. Mimio uses innovative infrared and ultrasound technology to track the position of your marker or eraser.
Once you get everything right, you can save the contents of your whiteboard session on your computer. After the information has been saved electronically, just erase your whiteboard and start a new page. You can print copies of your whiteboard session, send whiteboard pages via email, or drag the contents into a report you are writing. The Mimio software even includes a handwriting-recognition feature, so if you have detailed notes, you can get the computer to decipher them into text.
Mimio also has a handy playback feature, which lets other people view your whiteboard content just as you put it together. So, if your whiteboard session included several steps, in which information was added over time, the viewer can see how it was all put together. This is great for someone who wasn't involved in a meeting; watching the whiteboard playback, she or he can now see how thoughts evolved.
Like Mimio, eBeam also attaches to a whiteboard and captures information for a computer. The eBeam software includes the ability to broadcast meeting notes and drawings over the Internet or a corporate intranet in realtime. It has its own proprietary software for broadcasting meeting notes, and it can also use Microsoft NetMeeting.
Both products also work with electronic projectors for meetings in which people want to add a computer demo or slide presentation. While eBeam's equipment is smaller than Mimio's, both can easily be packed into a briefcase for a meeting anytime, anywhere.
So the next time you think about a meeting or any other type of collaboration, consider this new breed of whiteboard. Whether people are drafting strategic concepts or doing engineering chalk talk, these product could dramatically boost their productivity.