BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
At its Build 2018 developer conference this week, Microsoft pulled out the stops with a flashy demo showing what the future of the office meeting could be, courtesy of IT.
In the demo, a cone-shaped prototype device with a 360-degree camera and microphones identified and greeted people by name as they walked into the room. The device, paired with Surface Hub displays and powered by Cortana, continued to transcribe the meeting, perform real-time translation, and automatically set to-do lists and reminders. Microsoft's augmented reality headset, HoloLens, was then used to view a holographic 3D model of a building.
The scenario at Build 2018 had many technology elements at play, including artificial intelligence, computer vision, voice transcription, real-time translation, remote participation, accessibility for people with disabilities, analytics, visualization and augmented reality.
The glitzy deployment of technology wowed me, but analysts, it seemed, were less impressed. One went so far as to say some of the tools presented in the demo could be considered superfluous.
"If you look holistically at the whole issue of meetings, or even the broader issue of how teammates stay informed and create consensus, real-time spatial analysis and recording to-dos are not a huge problem," said Craig Roth, research vice president at Gartner. "It's a large amount of money and technology to throw at a small part of what makes meetings less productive."
Build 2018: Tech ignores the bigger issue
It's not so much the technology itself that critics I talked to took issue with -- it's that Microsoft's vision for the future of meetings, though compelling, is centered on a dated concept: meetings.
"I take [the Build 2018 demo] as a good example of technology-based, fixed-process innovation -- that is, if you keep the process of meetings fixed then here's how we could use the next generation of technology to help," Roth said.
The question is: Should the process of meetings stay fixed? Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, doesn't think so. He said there are still scenarios where real-time get-togethers have value, but that many meetings are "ruminants of a time before we had the modern communication, coordination and collaboration tools that are available today."
"I'm thrilled to see Microsoft working on automating the mundane aspects such as scheduling and note-taking, but I'd like to see more focus on [examining] why meetings happen in the first place and how they can be driven towards better outcomes," added Lepofsky, who specializes in the future of work. "The entire meeting lifecycle -- before, during and after -- is in need of improvement."
Roth said Microsoft's Build 2018 demo doesn't take into account that the future of meetings is not just about improving the good meetings; it's also about getting rid of the "stupid" ones.
Craig Rothresearch vice president, Gartner
"Improving stupid meetings provides as little benefit as automating out-of-date processes," Roth said. "They should be eliminated, not technologically enhanced. For most companies, removing all stupid meetings would have far more benefit than all this technology being across the board, and it's free."
He added that content and collaboration systems, such as co-authoring in Office 365, G Suite or wikis, provide mechanisms for observable work -- or "working out loud" -- that can often replace the need for status meetings.
For those times when meetings are absolutely necessary, Roth gave an example of how technology is used at Gartner to improve meetings. All meetings at the research firm have an instant messaging backchannel that queues up the questions and points attendees want to make. The meeting owner puts important points or findings in there for the record. That documentation -- a partial transcript with the main points -- gets sent out after the meeting.
But Lepofsky's vision for the future of meetings is even more transformational.
"I want to see a future where all the emails, calendar entries, profile documents, tasks, note-taking, files and all the other elements of a meeting become seamless," he said. "I should be able to click on an event on my calendar and instantly access all the content related to that meeting, whether it took place yesterday, last month, last year, or is coming up next week." Take notes, Microsoft.