Cognitive Meetings with Ricoh and IBM

Meetings consume a significant portion of the modern worker’s “schedule space” and perhaps more worryingly an even greater proportion of their “mental space.” In his book from last millennium (both literally and figuratively), Peter Drucker wrote that an executive should be worried if more than 25% of his or her time was spent in meetings. Imagine Dr Drucker’s disquiet if he were still alive today and heard the number from a 2011 research study in Italy: 85% of a CEOs time is spent in meetings. Perhaps CEOs are an anomaly in respect of this quantum, their time in meetings reflective of a greater need for gathering information from the troops for setting strategy. While precise macro-level figures are difficult to source on the amount of time managers and employees spend in meetings, the fact remains that too many people spend too much of their work time in meetings, and by implication not enough time doing their core work.

With such a large proportion of work time spent in meetings, it is hardly surprising that improving meeting effectiveness is a common topic of discussion, research, and advisory services. And new technology. Some technology—such as audio conferencing and online meetings—have become commonplace, and have improved the efficiency of meetings but generally degraded their effectiveness

IBM and Ricoh announced a joint technology agreement earlier this year focused firmly on the effectiveness challenge. Ricoh sells interactive whiteboards for meeting rooms, and the new partnership sees addition of the cognitive capabilities courtesy of IBM Watson. The one line intent is to make Watson “an active meeting participant, using real-time analytics to help guide discussions so teams can make faster, better and more informed decisions.”

From the press release (February 2017), the solution enables:

  • Simple, global voice control of meetings: once a meeting begins, any employee, whether in-person or located remotely in another country, can easily control what’s on the screen, including advancing slides, all through simple voice commands using Watson’s Natural Language API.
  • Translation of the meeting into another language: the Intelligent Workplace Solution can translate speakers’ words into several other languages and display them on screen or in transcript.
  • Easy-to-join meetings: with the swipe of a badge the Intelligent Workplace Solution can log attendance and track key agenda items to ensure all key topics are discussed.
  • Ability to capture side discussions: during a meeting, team members can also hold side conversations that are displayed on the same whiteboard.

Ricoh’s positioning of this whiteboard as “cognitive-enabled” is tied directly to cognition (defined as the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses). Cognitive computing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are currently all hot topics for investment and product development in the technology sector, and are easily oversold by zealous technology evangelists. We need to be careful to ensure the use of the term is fully captured in the reality of the product, not just its marketing brochure.

While a good first step – and I applaud the development – much more is needed to truly warrant the use of the “cognitive” label. It would be more accurate to use the term “voice activated” for most of the features listed above, and while that is indeed an admirable forward step, it falls far short of “cognitive.” For example, how about if the meeting leader or another participant was able to ask these questions of Watson:

“Watson, we’ve been discussing this for an hour now, and going around in circles. What are we missing?”
“Watson, out of the people at this meeting, who should not be coming?
“Watson, from what you know about the other people at our firm, who should be here?” 
“Watson, you’ve listened to our last ten meetings. How do we improve our meeting performance?”
“Watson, was this meeting necessary, or was there a better way of trying to achieve these outcomes.”

If Watson could answer those questions about a meeting or series thereof, the “cognitive” label would be well-earned, and if the answers were accurate, would be a great boon to eradicating ineffectual meeting cultures the world over.

And yet these are the very questions that every meeting leader should be asking all the time of the meetings he or she calls, with no Watson required:

How are we going?
What do we need to do to improve?
Who is not making enough of a contribution (perhaps by being lost in their mobile phone rather than engaged and attentive in the meeting)?
Who else should be here?
Is there a better way of achieving these outcomes?

Leaving these questions unasked and unanswered only reinforces the problems with meetings today, and creates an opportunity for the automation of the analysis. Perhaps we need greater near-term human performance rather than near-future technological innovation.

The future, in my view, doesn’t have to wait for Watson to improve. The future can be grasped now by asking and answering the core questions of meeting effectiveness—using human cognitive intelligence and insight. 

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