September 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA4
Advantages and disadvantages are discussed along with answering some questions for the individual who's uncertain about using it.
Meetings are an important part of the job in Extension. This is because face-to-face (FTF) interaction is the traditional standard on which we base our communication with clientele groups, advisory boards, and Extension colleagues. However, FTF meetings may be an inefficient and costly way to conduct business, particularly when participants must travel a great distance. Over the past few years, travel-related costs (lodging, airfare, meals), have increased at a rate frequently greater than that of inflation.1 Travel budgets, on the other hand, have often remained static or decreased. An alternative meeting format called teleconferencing may be a solution.
...teleconferencing can only facilitate the linking of people-it does not alter the complexity of group communication. Although it may be easier for us to communicate with teleconferencing, it may also be easier for us to miscommunicate.
Teleconferencing is interactive group communication (three or more people in two or more locations) through an electronic medium.2 In general terms, teleconferencing can bring people together under one roof even though they're separated by hundreds of miles. Teleconferencing was first introduced in the 1960's with American Telephone and Telegraph's Picturephone. At that time, however, no demand existed for the new technology. Travel costs were reasonable and consumers were unwilling to pay the monthly service charge for using the picturephone, which was regarded as more of a novelty than as an actual means for everyday communication. But things have changed in the past 10 years.
Today, teleconferencing is used in many ways. There are three basic types:
- Video conferencing-television-like communication augmented with sound.
- Computer conferencing-printed communication through keyboard terminals.
- Audio-conferencing -verbal communication via the telephone with optional capacity for telewriting or telecopying.3
In some state Extension programs (Wisconsin and Illinois), teleconferencing is a basic communication technique. Yet, the verdict is still out in many other states. This article highlights some of the major advantages and disadvantages of teleconferencing and answers some questions for those uncertain about using teleconferencing in their Extension activities.
One of the major advantages of teleconferencing is its potential to reduce the cost of group meetings. Savings come primarily from reduced travel costs. In fact, teleconferencing can reduce national business travel-associated costs by about 30% annually-a $4.5 billion savings. 4 A good example of the dollars that can be saved is a teleconference conducted by the Spruce Budworm Technology Transfer (SBWTT) Program for the Lake States Region-part of the Canada/United States Spruce Budworm Program.
The SBWTT project is a forest entomology research effort concerned with disseminating information about the spruce budworm to forest managers in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Part of the project involved a cost comparison between a 14-person audioconference and a comparable FTF meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota. The comparison revealed that the audioconference cost 42% less that the FTF meeting.5 The major difference between the two was the travel-related expenses.
Although saving money is a big advantage of teleconferencing, there are several other advantages:
- People (including outside guest speakers) who wouldn't normally attend a distant FTF meeting can participate.
- Follow-up to earlier meetings can be done with relative ease and little expense.
- Socializing is minimal compared to an FTF meeting; therefore, meetings are shorter and more oriented to the primary purpose of the meeting.
- Some routine meetings are more effective since one can audioconference from any location equipped with a telephone.
- Communication between the home office and field staffs is maximized.
- Severe climate and/or unreliable transportation may necessitate teleconferencing.
- Participants are generally better prepared than for FTF meetings.
- It's particularly satisfactory for simple problem solving, information exchange, and procedural tasks.
- Group members participate more equally in wellmoderated teleconferences than in an FTF meeting.6
While teleconferencing is characterized by many advantages, it does have disadvantages:
- Technical failures with equipment, including connections that aren't made.
- Unsatisfactory for complex interpersonal communication, such as negotiation or bargaining.
- Impersonal, less easy to create an atmosphere of group rapport.
- Lack of participant familiarity with the equipment, the medium itself, and meeting skills.
- Acoustical problems within the teleconferencing rooms.
- Difficulty in determining participant speaking order; frequently one person monopolizes the meeting.
- Greater participant preparation and preparation time needed.
- Informal, one-to-one, social interaction not possible.7
To minimize some of the potential problems, users should carefully evaluate their meeting needs and goals to determine if teleconferencing is appropriate. Users should also assess their audience. For example, consider the size of the group, their level of experience with teleconferencing, and the extent of their familiarity with each other. These precautions won't eliminate all the problems that could arise, but they should reduce the likelihood of their occurring.
Teleconferencing represents a unique alternative to the traditional FTF meeting. Most of the time, a teleconference is an appropriate substitute. Every meeting is unique, with different goals, objectives, and purpose. Teleconferencing can't satisfy the individual needs of every type of meeting. Teleconferencing and FTF meetings involve different patterns of interaction and social codes of behavior. As we develop and refine new communication patterns appropriate for teleconferencing, we'll be modifying future human communication patterns. Researchers at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California, offer some suggestions as we make this transition:
- The system isn't the solution. The technology of teleconferencing has been emphasized -often at the expense of social and organizational structures that support communication. The medium of communication is only the means to carry information; the end to which the medium is used also must be considered.
- Face-to-face interaction isn't always the best, although it's generally the standard to which media designers aspire. However, anyone who has been forced to sit through a boring meeting can attest to the fact that an FTF meeting is often both inefficient and ineffective.
- More communication isn't always better. Consideration of teleconferencing media is often accompanied by an unexamined assumption that more communication would most certainly be better. Often, people have more information than they're able to absorb effectively, and introducing yet another means of communication could make things worse. Communication pollution and information overload are real problems.8
Teleconferencing has vast potential for increasing the efficiency of human communication. For those of us in Extension, this means less time away from home, more money to devote to other activities, and more time to spend on other projects. Yet, teleconferencing for all it's worth can never totally replace FTF meetings. FTF interaction is an important part of human communication. Furthermore, teleconferencing can only facilitate the linking of people-it does not alter the complexity of group communication. Although it may be easier for us to communicate with teleconferencing, it may also be easier for us to miscommunicate.
- D. W. Nanberg, "Teleconferencing and Continuing Education: The Experience
of the American Dietetic Association," Satellite Communications,
XV (No. 3,1981),14,18,26-29.
- J. Carroll, "Teleconferencing," Dun's Business Month, CIX (No. 1,
- R. Johansen, J. Vallee, and K. Spangler, "Electronic Meetings: Utopian
Dreams and Complex Realities," The Futurist, X11 (No. 5,1978),
- W. Sonneville, "Teleconferencing Enters Its Growth Stage," Telecommunications,
XIV (No. 6,1980),29-32,34.
- R. G. Rogan and others, "Audioconferencing: A Case Study from the
Spruce Budworm Technology Transfer Program" (Article submitted to the
Northern Journal of Applied Forestry, 1983).
- J. Bartlett, "Interesting Highlights of the Growing Teleconferencing
Boom," Communication News, XVII (No. 12,1980), 42; Sonneville,
"Teleconferencing Enters Its Growth Stage"; Stu Sutherland, "Extension
Teleconferencing in the 1980's," Extension Service Review, LI
I (No. 2,1981),12-16; L. Parker, M. Baird, and M. Monson, Introduction
to Teleconferencing (Madison: University of Wisconsin-Extension,
Center for Interactive Programs, 1982); and Rogan and others, "Audioconferencing."
- Johansen, Vallee, and Spangler, "Electronic Meetings"; Parker, Baird,
and Monson, Introduction to Teleconferencing; Rogan and others,
"Audioconferencing"; and Sonneville, "Teleconferencing Enters Its Growth
- Johansen, Vallee, and Spangler, "Electronic Meetings."