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The effect of coffee on the outcome of different meeting formats

Symbolism in management and their unexpected impact are fields of study on their own.

Strangely enough I experienced coffee as a symbol a few times in the work environment. To show social involvement, fair trade coffee was distributed in the organization. To show care for the health of the workers, organic coffee was adopted. When the organization wanted to display its cultural involvement the Italian coffees and sophisticated derivatives became available. In many organizations coffee was free of charge for many years. I remember the so called 'coffee ladies', unprecedented in popularity, bringing the liquid gold to the smallest and most remote offices in the buildings. The arrival of those ladies, with their caddies strategically placed, was the signal for the colleagues in the designated perimeter to meet. During those short meetings not only the last gossips were exchanged but also processes were being oiled. Meaning that, where blocked activities got unblocked. Priorities were adapted, again for the benefit of the process in which the meeting parties were involved. No agenda, so no work disturbance was experienced; problems were solved around a cup of coffee. Coffee was the catalyst around which colleagues found creative solutions to blocking situations and all kinds of issues.

When the popular ladies were replaced by automates the meeting frequency dropped just like the quality of the coffee and the number of creative solutions. Organizations might have improved their processes meanwhile so that ' oiling ' became less necessary, but not all organizations obtained a positive balance through that automation.  But, as long as the coffee was for free, it was consumed in equal quantities...

Until savings became the credo of each CEO whose revenue was directly linked to the stock price for the shareholders. Time was there to make the employees pay for their coffee. Coffee was no longer a 'human right' on the work floor. It became a symbol, now of austerity. If the saving was not substantial, at least the message was a strong symbolic one. In some cases the frustrations on budget cuts were so drastic the coffee disappeared completely, even from community events. In the hope this time the symbol would demonstrate involvement in the cost cuts policy of the top management. That's the time to ring the alarm bell. Not because we fear the workers will have to pay to pee as from tomorrow yet. A coffee pause without coffee after or before hours of meeting withholds the participants from benefits only possible in life encounters.

The contrast between savings on coffee and structural savings is for another contribution, this one is focussing on the different meeting formats. For more information on meeting formats please refer to this document.


Characteristics of meetings in person.

These characteristics include variance in the purpose or outcome of meeting: networking, goodwill creation, creative exchanges on problem solving  and capability innovation, personal involvement on business issues,...

Also the transmission channels are diverse: spoken, gestures, touching, body language, ... all for the purpose of emphasis and unambiguity. Not to forget the expression of emotions which ensures the message is engraved into the long term memory of the audience. The cited combinations make the information exchange through physical meeting very effective.

The frequency of exchanged ideas is the highest because the counter parties get immediate feedback.

The potential for inspirational exchange is a function of the number of persons attending and actively participating in the meeting.

When people decide to physically meet, they implicitly expect the aforementioned benefits in return for the freed time and expenses.

When the coffee catalyst is withdrawn, the potential participants have to find another one. Alternatives  are lunches and dinners, open agenda slots during meetings,...

Without those catalysts, a physical meeting is required only in a few number of occasions. Live meetings are costly matters: traveling time and costs, rental of space, some minimal sort of catering if it survived the assault on symbols,...

Characteristics of meetings in general


The meeting concept in the scope of this document.

Meeting here means an encounter of a number of persons in the same time span. People can exchange ideas asynchronously: by means of mail exchanges, user groups, delayed views of multimedia,... The channels through which the meeting is realized are diverse.

We'll find out which channels are suitable for which purpose. The intended meetings here are not meetings between 2 persons. More persons need to be involved because a couple can meet through any channel, their frequency of inspirational stimulation will hardly suffer when being engaged in a telephone communication compared to a physical meeting.

There is a need to reconsider the format of meetings because too many times the format is not chosen, it is just continued by habit. New formats became available through technological developments which offer a better match with the purpose of the meeting.

Information flow many to one

Most of the information exchanged here  is a form of voting or a form of brainstorming whereby ideas are collected but  the participants do not inspire each other because there is no interaction between the participants.

Ranking can be expressed in written, choosing amongst different ranks is similar, as well as sticky dots can be virtualized. Only migrating needs physical attendance.

Whether brainstorming is performed by means of anonymous or other cards, the presence of the stormers isn't necessary. They won't benefit of a cross fertilized inspiration because their creative effort is rendered in a splendid isolation with cards.

Many to one information flow

Information flow one to many

This direction of flow doesn't necessitate a personal presence.

Theoretical training, report nor presentation require frequent physical presence.

Call conference and video conference are part of one channel group. Discussions through that format are best held with only a limited number of persons since the interaction between the participants is sequential: only one can speak to the rest of the audience which can then respond one at a time. A call conference or video conference is more suitable for one to many message distributions.

Webinars are meeting channels also suited for one to many communications. They allow sharing a PC's desktop or applications. Participants can post questions, mostly by messages, but they are answered with a delay. So there is no interaction with the presentation. Moreover the person responding to the message is not the one performing the presentation. Question, answer and presentation are desynchronized.

Call conference, video conference and webinar are cheap alternatives to physical meetings. Recording them makes the media even more interesting in specific uses because the message can be repeated at one's convenience (just in time knowledge), the persons who could not free the specific time frame can still capture the message.

Business case for webinars

There is a strong business case for webinars.

Many communications are uni-directional (presentations, courses, training, communications, tutorials, how to's,…) or mainly uni-directional ,meaning with very limited interaction like providing support and running workshops.
When conducted in physical presence, those meetings are costly (travels), time consuming and inefficient. The reasons are, among others:
• The knowledge is not required at the moment it is transmitted
• When it is required, the content of the message has to be sought, the powerpoint interpreted, discussed with others,…
• All interested people could not attend
• People who attended are not concerned
• The message has combined channels (audio and video) only once in time: the moment of the message formulation

One to many information flow

Information flow many to many


While exposing what passes into your brain may be highly inspirational for the audience when expressed orally, the level of creativity attained here is greatest with a physical presence. Again for the reason of increased frequency of message exchange .


Many to many information flows are, when there is interactivity involved, called discussions. In discussions we distinguish 2 phases: the exploratory phase and the creative phase. When discussions are blocked we introduce a de-blocking phase.

Exploratory phase

Through the exploratory phase we want to learn about the different viewpoints, their opportunities and threats. This can be achieved with or without physical presence, depending on the chosen format. Working with speaker order lists, going around the present persons in seat order, dynamic facilitation by calling actively  for contributions, evocation by gestures of the message are  exploration formats which require the participants to be physically present. An effective exploratory format without the need for physical presence is stories which can be transferred in written format. Also a picture gallery can be prepared whereby the participants draw their picture prior to the meeting,

Creative phase

All formats requiring creativity are helped with physical presence. The frequency of creative ideas produced through inspirational oral interaction with participants is still unprecedented.

These formats include meditation, small group discussions, talking sticks and fishbowl seating and moving.

De-blocking strategies

A  few  formats are only available  for physical meetings like kinesthetic mapping  and external inspiration. Switching places can be performed mentally and reported on in written or by drawing. Listing the pros and cons (or SWOT analysis) can also be performed without physical presence.

Integrated methodologies

World Cafe and Open Space contain both  the different phases. Appreciative inquiry is a wider reaching methodology which uses the different discussion methodologies. All 3 require a physical presence.

Other catalysts

There are other catalysts for many to many  information flows: breakfast, lunch and dinner; coffee pauses, agenda free time slots. The purpose of those catalysts in the work environment  is to increase the frequency of inspirational interaction and finally creativity. If no other format for creative inspiration is available (see above), these  are last rescue possibilities.

May to many information flow


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