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 April 2005 Feature
Jim Olshefsky is a director in the Committee Services Department of the ASTM Technical Committee Operations Division.

Virtual Meetings
Another Resource in ASTM’s Electronic Toolbox

After only two full years since they were first launched, ASTM virtual meetings have exploded onto the scene to make a significant impact on the way standards are developed. Virtual meetings, commonly referred to as web conferencing, allow members to share information with anyone in the world in a fraction of the time (and at a fraction of the cost) that it would take to hold a physical meeting or event. This technology was added to ASTM’s electronic toolbox in late 2002.

What Are Virtual Meetings?

Perhaps it’s easiest to explain what virtual meetings are by explaining what they are not. Virtual meetings are not video conferencing. Video conferencing technology uses cameras and satellites to transmit images of the participants during a meeting. Virtual meetings are not chat rooms. Chat rooms provide a real-time Internet-based system to exchange text messages.

Virtual meetings combine good old-fashioned teleconferencing (over the telephone) with Internet document viewing and editing. Virtual meetings are real-time, interactive, and a valuable way to share information quickly, easily and cost effectively.

How They Work

Virtual meetings allow a collaborative conference to take place via the World Wide Web and telephone for two or more participants in different locations. Virtual meetings enhance communication through the use of several collaborative technologies including:

• Desktop sharing;
• PowerPoint presentations;
• White boards;
• Text slides;
• Polling tools;
• File sharing; and
• Text messaging.

Virtual meetings combine one or more of these elements with the audio elements of a teleconference so that participants can have an “in-the-room” meeting with visual aids, shared files, and exchange of information in real time. Instead of zipping a file back and forth via e-mail, the shared workspace can be accessed by all the members of the web conference.

Frequency of Use

Virtual meetings are growing in popularity with ASTM technical committees. The number of meetings held per month and the number of participants has continued to rise since the September 2002 launch.

In 2004, 232 virtual meetings were conducted. In January 2005 alone, 29 virtual meetings were held, pointing to a 50 percent projected increase for this year. The number of participants for the average meeting was in the range of six to 10 people.

(Article continues after Case Studies)

Case Studies
ASTM Committee E50 on Environmental Assessment, Risk Management and Corrective Action has been very successful in using virtual meetings to help accelerate standards development activities, specifically, the E50.02 Real Estate Assessment and Management Subcommittee. E50.02 has been utilizing virtual meetings on a monthly basis in developing revisions to E 1527, Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment Process. E 1527 is the de-facto industry standard for conducting environmental site assessments on commercial properties prior to a real estate transaction. This revision has further become a high priority for the real estate industry because the Environmental Protection Agency, in their new federal standard for conducting all appropriate inquiries, is targeting the resulting new version of E 1527 for reference. Virtual meetings have enabled the E 1527 task group to maintain momentum that otherwise gets lost when only meeting twice per year.
ASTM International continues to sign memorandums of understanding with the standards bodies of developing countries in an effort to strengthen relationships and aid in the development of standards for health, safety, and the environment. To date, ASTM has conducted virtual meeting training sessions with four such MOU countries: Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Egypt and Zambia. Other countries expressing an interest in the training are Ecuador, Indonesia, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Despite time zone and language barriers (although the Bolivia training was presented by ASTM staff in Spanish), virtual meetings have allowed ASTM staff to take ASTM International to the world. As a result, ASTM standards development efforts have been strengthened by the added international participation. Virtual meetings training has focused on how to find information on the ASTM Web site through live Web site demonstrations, the basics of the ASTM balloting process and a demonstration of the ASTM electronic balloting system.
How did an ASTM technical committee go from nothing to 18 standards (and about eight drafts in workflow) in under two years? Since the fall of 2002, Committee F37 on Light Sport Aircraft has conducted dozens of virtual meetings in order to accelerate their standards development efforts. Ultimately, F37 was charged with releasing a family of some 20 standards concurrent with the release of a Federal Aviation Administration regulation needing them as reference material – and only had approximately 18 months to do so. By mid-year, 2004, Committee F37 had organized themselves, drafted bylaws, erected a structure, and had approved 18 standards from six different subcommittees. Every subcommittee has conducted multiple virtual meetings, some scheduling them on a weekly basis (meeting once a week for over 2 1/2 hours each time) to ensure that work product kept flowing – resolving negatives and cooperatively redrafting. Occasionally, the entire committee would meet virtually as well. Leadership consistently met to coordinate the agendas for their conference calls and virtual meetings. F37’s accelerated birth and growth is a testimony to the use of virtual meetings as a means to persistently work through the consensus process.

Applications

ASTM has offered this new electronic tool mostly as a way to supplement the face-to-face meetings held each year. The predominant users of the virtual meetings technology have been small technical committee task groups meeting to resolve standards issues. Task group members are able to view and discuss a document, making necessary revisions as they go. In fact, a few task groups have locked in a regular meeting time each week for the duration of their projects.

Executive subcommittees have found virtual meetings to be beneficial in clearing agenda items from their regularly scheduled meetings. The new technology can be beneficial in reviewing membership assignments, selecting new officers, planning future meetings, or discussing award selections, to name a few. The tool has also been used quite effectively to develop plans for anniversary celebrations and other committee events.

New ASTM committees have particularly embraced virtual meetings with enthusiasm and eagerness. These new committees come to ASTM with a project management mindset — one in which Gantt charts and milestones are a necessary and expected part of the culture. ASTM’s newer committees are focused on controlling their resources for a relatively short-term objective. Other electronic tools, such as virtual meetings and electronic balloting, have enabled these groups to develop standards in as little as six months from start to finish.

A new pilot program, slated for the end of March, will connect several technical experts from Latin American countries with technical experts in the United States from Committee C09 on Concrete and Concrete Aggregates for an exchange of information related to specific ballot items of interest to both groups. Virtual meetings have already played an important part in the planning of this pilot project in that they were used to facilitate communication between planners in Spain, Chile, and various U.S. cities.

Training

ASTM members and staff have also found that training is yet another application for the use of this new technology. Virtual meetings have been used successfully to train new members all over the world. As part of the memorandums of understanding that ASTM has been signing with developing nations, training on the ASTM process and effective participation has been offered to each of the signature countries. Members around the globe are finding that access to the ASTM International process is as easy as connecting to the Internet and logging on to the ASTM Web site.

In addition to the live training being conducted, the virtual meeting system has allowed ASTM staff to record and post virtual training sessions on the ASTM Web site. To date, four training modules have been posted on the “Member and Officer Training” page found under the “Technical Committees” link. (See the article “Enhanced Member and Officer Training on the ASTM Web Site” by Len Morrissey in the January issue of SN.) Member workshops led by staff are also now offered on this site. These recorded modules and virtual workshops now supplement the ongoing training during lunch sessions at Committee Week and the biennial ASTM International Officers’ Conference.

Getting Started

To set up a virtual meeting, simply contact your staff manager or visit the “Virtual Meetings” page of the ASTM Web site found under the “Technical Committees” link. Provide the subject of your proposed meeting, as well as the requested time/date/duration and e-mail addresses for those members you wish to invite. Attendees need only have a telephone and Internet access (a 56K bps connection or better is recommended). Presenters are able to download the software they need in a matter of minutes. Upon notification from the staff manager, ASTM’s Committee Services Department will e-mail invitations that include a URL address for the meeting and a phone number for the audio portion. Committee Services staff is also available online during your meeting to offer technical assistance if necessary.

Virtual meetings are easy to use and quickly growing in popularity. As ASTM International moves forward, virtual meetings will continue to be an important part of supplementing face-to-face meetings. Our results have shown that productivity gains are immediate and the reduced costs to our members are a significant benefit. Find out why more and more committees are turning to virtual meetings as an important new technology in the ASTM electronic toolbox. //

 
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