Thursday, June 11, 2009

Meeting Salad

The other day I mentioned that I was trying to bring some order to meetings with a new form I'd created. This all started from "meeting salad." If the image below of papers randomly drawn from my briefcase seems familiar, then you too have produced your share of the stuff.
The name "meeting salad" is one I drew from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Here's the quote, describing what was swept out of "Mucho's" car (emphasis added):
[Y]ou had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused [...] and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost: clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10 cents, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the markets, butts, tooth-shy combs, rags of old underwear or dresses [...], all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair [...].
The description seems apt. I had googled "meeting notes" to see if someone had published an open-source solution, and found this as the top link:
A common bad habit I have come across with managers and executives in recent years is the accumulation of unprocessed meeting notes. It is heartbreaking to see so much effort go into the creation of meetings and the capturing of what goes on, and the stress created and value lost from irresponsible management of the results. At least 80 percent of the professionals I work with have pockets of unprocessed meeting notes nested away in spiral notebooks, folders, drawers and piles of papers.
So it seems that meeting salad is being produced in mass quantities. The site's recommendation was basically to have more self-discipline and to go through the notes once in a while. I need more than that. Using the form as a start, I will build a little database and form application on top of it, so that my project coordinator or other assistant can enter the data. The beauty of this is that each little leaf of meeting salad will be tagged with a destination, like IT or Assessment Committee. Then, when I'm going to meet with some person or group I can simply query the database for unresolved items and have fodder for a meeting agenda. Right now I'm just carrying the notebook around with me everywhere, but when there are many pages it's not convenient to scan through looking for Earthquake Prevention Committee or whatever.

Once it's built I'll post it at, and you can use it too, if you want. I bought the domain name yesterday for a sawbuck, but there's absolutely nothing there yet. If you have comments or suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

On a related note, organizing email is an equal pain. I know that google is coming out with their Wave thing to replace email soon, and maybe that will help (if you haven't heard of it, you've been under a rock). But this morning I stumbled upon Xobni--a tool that integrates with MS Outlook, which I use for email. The problem with traditional email, Outlook included, is that it produces what we may as well call "email salad" -- heaps and heaps of data that are only loosly organized. Yes, you can sort and you can search, but I often find myself dreading sifting through two weeks of messages to find the attachment I was looking for. (Of course, we should be archiving docs with something like openIGOR, and my group does that, but not everyone does.)

Xobni is a free tool that looks like it can help with email salad by providing more intelligence about correspondence. Primarily this is done by focusing on individuals and networks as the main unit of analysis, rather than an individual email. You can see screenshots at their site. It's very pretty and installed cleanly on my machine (although the install dialog was hidden behind another window, which caused me to think it was frozen for a while). The image below (from their website) hints at some of the features, including integration with social networking sites, threaded conversations, message statistics, and easily browsed attachments by person.

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