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September/October 2011
PlainTalk

What’s Next

Participation from Near and Far

James ThomasWhat’s next? It’s a question we ask often. It’s the question that keeps ASTM International in forward motion, keeps it dynamic. More often than not, the answer to that question lies in technology that makes developing standards easier, better, faster.

Still, ASTM International is inherently human, an organization of people, a network of technical experts who thrive on contact and interaction, the rich life of the technical committee. Ideally, technology and people work together in a balanced way. But how does an organization embrace what’s new without losing what’s valuable? Let’s look at a discussion that is taking place right now regarding hybrid meetings.

ASTM International conducted a pilot program earlier this year in which four major committees, D10 on Packaging, E18 on Sensory Evaluation, F04 on Medical and Surgical Materials and Devices, and D35 on Geosynthetics, held full committee meetings on site as usual, with the added element of extensive remote participation. Access to the on-site meetings was by telephone coupled with a shared website that provided visual computer-aided participation. For the first time, full committees held hybrid meetings, that is, with a mixture of on-site and remote participants.

Remote participation is not new to ASTM International members. Many members are already familiar with WebEx virtual meetings and teleconferences. However, the pilot hybrid meeting program was without precedent in its range. One committee, for example, held 10 hybrid meetings over the course of two days and had approximately 100 members participate remotely.

A survey has been conducted among the participants for purposes of analyzing the pilot program. The results will be more than interesting. They will go to the heart of the ASTM International experience: friendships, contacts, the immensely vast and invaluable network of colleagues that are the great added value of standards development. For many, these benefits alone make the travel and time invested worth the effort. On-site experts are not distracted by the pulls of the office, nor are they confined to microphones and computer screens. Meetings on the margins, lunches and dinners are often spontaneous forums for progress. In the end, there is really no substitute for being there.

On the other hand, remote participation brings in people for whom travel, time and financial considerations make on-site participation impossible. It fills out ranks, broadens the range of consensus and gives real meaning to the principle of openness. Africa, Japan and Australia are, after all, very far away from most ASTM International meetings, at least at this point in time, and for some government, academic and consumer representatives, the resources for travel just aren’t there. Remote participation brings them there.

No step forward is simple. For example, one of the realities of hybrid meetings is that they come at a price. Beside the normal hotel costs, sound systems, equipment, projectors and phone lines are among the extras involved. A question to be considered is whether or not remote participants are willing to assume those costs. The time lost in waiting for a microphone to speak may strike some as inefficient and detracting from the spontaneity of debate and discussion. At the same time, our younger members are infinitely more comfortable with electronic discussions and virtual interactions. One ASTM committee has developed a standard without ever coming together in a face to face meeting, and yet the world’s best standards for more than 100 years have been developed by people who are dedicated and committed to being fully present and fully engaged.

Some respondents to the survey have indicated that the choice to have a hybrid meeting or not should be decided on a case by case basis, and that teleconferences and virtual meetings are still best utilized by task groups, for meetings between meetings, executive or planning meetings, or training sessions — functions that are utilized to accelerate the standards process but not pre-empt it. When the results of the survey are fully analyzed and presented to the ASTM International board of directors, the discussion will move forward and will include the views of the participants and the challenges of balancing technology and human effort. Meanwhile, our readers’ input is welcomed and will be greatly appreciated. Please feel free to write to me using the contact information listed below.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM International

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