Optimizing Collaborative Bandwidth in Virtual Meetings

graphic facilitation virtual graphic facilitation Dec 16, 2014

The following article is excerpted from “Collaborative Bandwidth: Creating Better Virtual Meetings” by Rachel Smith, part of the Organization Development Journal’s Winter 2014 special issue on “OD in the Digital Age.”

Remote participants often find that virtual meetings are not an enjoyable or effective way to accomplish many of their intended objectives. There is some quality of a face-to-face meeting that is lost during a virtual meeting—it becomes more difficult to do collaborative and creative work. People are less efficient, productive, and creative, and retention is adversely affected.

We propose that this missing quality is collaborative bandwidth, which relates to the number and capacity of available communication channels.

What Is Collaborative Bandwidth?

When people convene a meeting for collaborative work, they can use several “languages,” or channels, to communicate with one another. The channels that are available in a meeting constitute that medium’s collaborative bandwidth.

Bandwidth, in electronics terminology, refers to the number of frequencies within a given band used for transmitting a signal. More colloquially, bandwidth can also refer to the energy or mental capacity required to deal with a situation.

Collaborative bandwidth can thus be defined as the number of channels available to support collaborative group work and the capacity of those channels to enable communication in the service of that work.

Collaborative Bandwidth in Face-to-Face Settings

In a typical face-to-face setting, common channels are nonverbal, verbal, written (natural language), written (formal language), and visual. With five channels available, face-to-face meetings enjoy a large amount of collaborative bandwidth. In a graphically facilitated face-to-face meeting, the number of available channels is almost doubled by the addition of the visual (captured), visual (created), and visual (co-created) channels.

Thus in face-to-face settings, especially graphically facilitated sessions, the potential collaborative bandwidth is very high, and information moves easily around the room. Not all channels are necessary or effective all the time, but having them available widens the options. Participants are intuitively aware of the abundance of collaborative bandwidth in the room available for communicating with others. This contributes to the feeling of immediacy that we experience in face-to-face meetings.

When meetings move to virtual settings, those channels get compressed and less information flows among the participants. Imagine a teleconference in which participants use only a voice connection with no support for visual information. The collaborative bandwidth is limited to one single channel: verbal communication.

This is fine for some purposes, such as exchanging pieces of concrete information, but the available collaborative bandwidth is not sufficient to support highly collaborative work, such as creating a five-year strategic vision. If we try to accomplish this kind of work without enough collaborative bandwidth, we feel frustrated, misunderstood, unheard, confused, and ineffective. We sense something is missing—something necessary to do our work well.

What might be gained in virtual work if we could bring back some of the missing collaborative bandwidth?

Adding Collaborative Bandwidth with Graphic Facilitation

The benefits of using graphic facilitation in face-to-face meetings are well understood by the businesses, associations, schools, government agencies, community service groups, and other organizations that have employed this technique for more than four decades. People in graphically facilitated meetings are more engaged, get more work done, are more creative, and retain more of the meeting’s content than when graphic facilitation is not being used.

Although graphic facilitation is typically practiced using markers and paper, it can certainly be translated into virtual settings. Graphic facilitation used in remote meetings is commonly called virtual graphic facilitation to distinguish it from face-to-face applications.

The virtual graphic facilitator uses drawing software to create visual displays while guiding the process with the group. Each person can see the display on his or her own computer. Instead of looking at static slides or watching someone type meeting minutes in a word processor, the group sees its conversation come to life on the screen in visual language and responds as it would to a large-scale paper display.

With the additional communication channels that graphic facilitation brings, some of the missing immediacy—the collaborative bandwidth—is restored. Engagement, effectiveness, creativity, and retention increase.

Virtual Graphic Facilitation Changes Meetings

Virtual graphic facilitation nearly doubles the collaborative bandwidth of a remote meeting. The effect of regaining access to those missing channels is striking.

We are all familiar with the perceived agony of web meetings. Even in its simplest applications, virtual graphic recording can make remote meetings more efficient, more effective—and not least of all, more enjoyable.

Workshop Opportunity: In September Rachel Smith will lead a four-session online workshop on Facilitating Virtual Collaboration.


This article is excerpted from “Collaborative Bandwidth: Creating Better Virtual Meetings” by Rachel Smith, which was published in the Organization Development Journal’s Winter 2014 issue (Vol. 32, No. 4., pp. 15–35). The full ODJ article can be downloaded at: ODJ_Winter_2014_Excerpt_Rachel_Smith.

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