Anti-Collaboration Boards

29 May 2018

“I believe whiteboards are an evil presence in meetings … Simply going to the board and picking up a pen changes the whole dynamic of meeting ownership, agenda, control and creates a power-dynamic that is pretty hostile to collaboration.” These are the words of Steven Sinofsky, prior president of the Windows division at Microsoft and current board member at Andreessen Horowitz.

Sinofsky admits they can be useful in certain types of brainstorming sessions, but generally advises to minimize or eliminate their use. He claims that in addition to being hostile to collaboration, whiteboards stifle participation of those unwilling to use them, and they amplify the ideas of those who do.

This advice seems in conflict with where the collaboration industry is headed – a new generation of e-whiteboards. Microsoft, Cisco, Zoom, and Google are among the vendors with a new generation of e-whiteboards that they claim improves productivity and collaboration.

I see the merits of both points of view, and have come to conclude that the two perspectives aren’t in conflict. Sinofsky is talking about actual (dumb) boards. The new variants on e-boards represent more than just a materials/format change – they represent a change in functionality.

The traditional whiteboard or chalkboard is a presentation surface effective for the sharing and documenting of concepts. It is, for the most part, a single-operator, line-of-sight, ephemeral device. Those limitations severely limit a board’s collaborative capabilities.

Old-school boards are relics of a different era. Today, we live, practice, and preach digital transformation. That’s why so many conference rooms are now equipped with a display device – to present and share digital content. More often than not, the whiteboard is the only analog component of a meeting. Some video conferencing solutions (Dolby, Cisco) have special software that can de-skew and enhance the image of a board in an attempt to drag them into present day.

Beyond the technologies, meetings themselves have evolved in two important ways. Modern meetings are more likely to include remote participants than before, and they are more likely to be collaborative.

Traditional whiteboards are not terribly useful to remote participants. Video conferencing solutions support screen sharing, but that’s more for presentation than ideation or collaboration.

Many of these new e-boards allow remote participants to contribute. That change democratizes the whiteboard – reducing the risk that someone will use it to hijack the meeting.

Conferencing solutions such as Webex Teams and Google Hangouts Meet even support a virtual whiteboard that can be used instead of or in conjunction with a physical e-board.

Not long ago, meetings were what happened between spurts of productive work. Today, meetings are increasingly where the work gets done. The e-board is one more tool to consider, and it has an important new feature: preservation. E-boards can save and share content, and when integrated into a team collaboration space an e-boards content becomes part of the persistent, shared conversation.

Sinofsky’s meetings were likely mostly with developers, and the shared content was probably keyboard-friendly. But many people have topics and ideas that cannot be easily conveyed with a keyboard. That’s precisely why free-hand drawing surfaces are in just about every conference room. A table, chair, and board are the core requirements of a meeting room – everything else (lights, phone, display, etc.) is optional.

Any meeting can be hijacked by an exuberant personality, but that’s no reason to cripple a meeting with ineffective tools. The modern e-board can be used to explain complex thoughts, to generate and organize ideas, and to preserve the evolution and outcomes of meetings. These uses can play an increasingly important role as meetings become more distributed and as touch screens replace keyboards on our devices.



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