THE PROBLEM IN DEPTH
Product development is notoriously arduous, requiring countless hours of strategic planning, collaboration, compromise, and technical tweaks. CoreObjects’ team of engineers, entrepreneurs, and "influencers" (technologists and venture capitalists, among them) work in a meeting-rich environment and rely heavily on the outcomes of those meetings to develop the products that ultimately make their customers successful.
"Lots of meetings are conducted, both internally and with customers off-site," Ravenel reports, and it’s there where ideas are conceived, expectations are voiced, and progress is reported. "It’s not easy to keep everyone on the same page," he continues. "Often, ideas are flowing and it’s hard to tell who said what and when." During demos in particular, it’s crucial that customer feedback is recorded quickly and accurately and that all players realize what’s required of them to move the development process forward.
For nearly 10 years, CoreObjects managed its meetings with follow-up conversations and emails summarizing what took place and identifying next steps. This approach had its limitations, however. According to Ravenel, agendas often were known only to the people who called the meetings, making it difficult for other participants to contribute adequately. Making attendees accountable for follow-up assignments also proved difficult.
"The inherent inefficiencies of using [standard] meeting tools such as paper notepads, Microsoft Word, or email lead to lost information and assignments, dropped deadlines, and even unsuccessful partnerships," Brett acknowledges. If you’re attending multiple meetings every day, "you can spend hours each week trying to consolidate, distribute, and manage this information properly."
Compounding the problem are issues of accuracy and perspective. "While it’s often the case that notes are taken at meetings, they don’t always reflect" what actually happened, Ravenel explains. "There’s room for interpretation." By spring 2007, there was an internal push "to force standardization and best practices" so that every meeting, regardless of its purpose or duration, would be as professional and productive as possible—for customers and for CoreObjects’ 400-plus employees.
CoreObjects officials researched several technologies in their quest for efficiency, including FileMaker Meetings, GoToMeeting, WebEx, wikis, and Windows SharePoint’s Meeting Management application. Most importantly, Ravenel says, they wanted meetings to have a declared agenda (with minutes taken) and key decisions and action items to be recorded and tracked. They also wanted notes from recurring meetings to be easily traceable, a searchable repository of meetings and documents used therein, a means for tracking action items to closure, and an easy-to-use solution with a low cost of ownership and minimal training.
Ravenel says MeetingSense quickly emerged as the obvious choice because it was "much easier to use" than other products considered. The first time users launch the application, MeetingSense automatically pulls in meetings from Microsoft Outlook and, in Brett’s words, "begins working on its own." When users schedule meetings, the software launches a ‘best practices wizard’ that requires them to submit a detailed agenda and other meeting particulars, thereby enabling invited attendees to better prepare. Once a meeting starts, MeetingSense captures all essential information that’s exchanged, including roll call, audio, minutes, key points and decisions, and action items. Once it ends, the organizer or moderator can customize and send captured information via a comprehensive email summary. That information is then "saved and archived in an online dashboard that can be accessed by any participant at any time"—even by those who don’t own the software. Finally, MeetingSense allows participants to update the dashboard as action items are completed, to add or update comments or files to meeting records and action items, and to search and retrieve all information (including circulated documents) associated with past and future meetings.
CoreObjects’ deployment of MeetingSense began in June 2007 "with one champion," who began using the software for meetings he scheduled. Within a few weeks, Brett continues, "there was a groundswell of interest" among those who had attended Ravenel’s meetings and seen what the software could do. The company began a widespread rollout of MeetingSense 2.0 roughly a month later, at a cost, Ravenel says, of "less than $50,000."
CoreObjects’ "power users" transitioned to version 3.0 during the software’s March beta-testing period. According to Ravenel, in less than a year of use, MeetingSense has dramatically reduced the company’s cost of doing business. "Internally and externally, we now keep great meeting minutes," he says. "Everyone can see the notes the moderator is taking and can make sure their point of view is captured. And the minutes the software delivers via email look incredibly professional."
Better still, MeetingSense has increased accountability—on all sides. "Why have meetings if nothing ever comes of them?" Ravenel asks. With MeetingSense, "When people make commitments in our organization, they know it’s visible and will be tracked. We can prove, via an auditable record, where we have or haven’t met the agreed-upon criteria." The end result, he adds, is "far more productive" meetings that "take far less time."
Though it’s hard to quantify the exact cost savings MeetingSense has delivered to date, Ravenel hazards this guess: For the moderator alone, he says, "We figure it saves 15 minutes per meeting," in terms of reducing the time spent producing and formatting notes. "If you have eight hour-long meetings per week, it’s saving you two hours per week," he continues. "Two hours per week x 52 weeks per year x $50 per hour equals $5,200 in time saved for one person in one year." With savings like that, he argues, "it’s worth every penny."