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Setting up an international conference ... online!

Putting on a conference, as anyone who has ever done it will attest, is a task plagued by organizational headaches. Meeting places must be found, lodgings secured, and arrivals and departures coordinated. Putting on an international conference, with attenders from around the world, adds the problems of language and culture to the equation. Putting on an international conference in another country-from the home office-means an organizational nightmare.

Or does it?

Not necessarily. Using electronic messaging technology, conference organizers are finding that some of the biggest barriers to global communication-distance, language, and time-are less difficult to overcome than they used to be. While using an electronic messaging service or system won't make putting on a conference in a faraway land as simple as setting up a meeting down the hall, at least one organization's experiences show that it can eliminate many of the headaches. TEE Beats the

Postal Service Loft"

"Before we began using electronic mail, sending out invitations to our conferences was something of a lottery," says Martha McDevitt, conference coordinator for Transnationals Information Exchange (TIE). "We'd mail invitations out to people around the world, and maybe they would arrive in a week. Maybe it would take two months. Maybe they wouldn't arrive at all. There was usually no way for us to know."

TIE, an international organization formed in 1978 from a loose association of trade union resource centers, makes the results of its own and others' research on global trends in industry available to labor groups around the world. The group deals with a number of different industries, including auto manufacture, agribusiness, and information technology. In addition to TIE's programs, an annual conference is held to bring together workers from plants or plantations around the world.

Since 1987, TIE has used a global electronic messaging system called GeoNet to maintain communication between its own offices and with other groups. According to McDevitt, the system's integrated package of electronic mail, fax, and telex services has made the task of organizing global conferences much easier-both before and after the events.

Pulling Together Auto Workers

TIE first used the electronic mail system as a global organizing tool in 1987, when it held a conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil as part of its program on the automobile industry. A three-member organizing committee met in Amsterdam in January to begin planning the conference, which was to be held in March. Shortly thereafter, one committee member went to Brazil, while another went to London. The three kept in constant contact electronically, exchanging ideas and reaching decisions online despite the distance and the difference in time zones.

"We found it easy and inexpensive to get mailboxes for everyone in our own organization we needed to communicate with, and many of the other individuals we needed to contact already had GeoNet accounts," says McDevitt. "It was easy to continue with the same small working committee. It didn't really matter that we were in different countries."

Contacting prospective attenders has also became easier since the group began communicating electronically. In addition to the electronic mail facilities that allow committee members to keep in touch, the system allows them to send fax and telex messages to groups and individuals around the world easily and economically.

"Even today," says McDevitt, "the only reliable way to communicate with people in some parts of the world-- Mexico, the Philippines, Indonesia--is by telex. Many of the individuals and unions we communicate with are moving towards fax because of its simplicity, but if the nation's telephone lines are poor, fax is unreliable. It would be great if everyone were on an e-mail system."

The 1987 conference involved workers from Latin and North America, Europe, the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, South Africa and Korea. "We could never have achieved what we did without e-mail," says McDevitt. "Getting someone from South Africa or the Philippines to Brazil is almost a full-time job in itself. When you consider that we had a limited budget and therefore had to make strategic decisions all the time-if it looked like no one from Korea could get a visa to leave the country, we could use the money allocated for that person to help someone from Japan, for example-e-mail becomes an invaluable tool."

Breaking the Language Barrier

Strategic planning was not the only area where electronic communication helped TIE plan and execute the 1987 conference. Because many of the participants did not speak each others' native tongues, the conference was conducted in a variety of languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, French and English.

"The people attending the conference were asked to write two or three pages on the situation in their plant, and another two or three pages on the overall situation of trade unions in their country. We used the electronic messaging system to relay these papers back and forth around the world for translation, editing, and production," says McDevitt.

Of course, even using electronic communication can't help avoid every problem. Despite months of work, last minute problems still occurred at the 1987 conference. Two South African delegates were not allowed to board the plane to Brazil, and participants from Japan ended up staying behind to testify in a court case. Still, speedy communication by electronic mail was able to take the mystery out of these delegates' failure to arrive. The conference was a resounding success, with some 40 participants-most of them shop-floor workers-meeting in Sao Paulo.

"For some of these people, it was the first time they had been away from their homes," says McDevitt. "It was interesting to bring them together, because at the time many car makers were fostering the view that they were going to have to cut jobs at one factory or another because people were working harder in Japan or at some other plant, which would lead to an attitude of mistrust among the workers-an us-versus-them attitude.

"The people at the conference got to know each other, to like each other, to dance the samba together. And they began to realize that they were all facing similar issues-that they were all part of a global community."

Spreading The Word

During the conference, participants produced a newspaper in Portuguese summarizing the news and discussions that were taking place. Tens of thousands of copies of the paper were distributed at the gates of automobile factories around Sao Paulo by the conference participants, and versions were later produced in German and Spanish for use in Mexico, Argentina and Germany. The paper was a success, and the idea has been used at many of TIE's subsequent conferences. Again, the ability to communicate quickly and easily with translators around the world proved invaluable in spreading the word.

Since 1987, TIE has planned, coordinated, and executed numerous events using the model developed for its first Sao Paulo conference. Electronic communication has become a vital part of its organizational toolbox-one they can't imagine doing without.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Transnationals Information Exchange's use of electronic messaging technology
Author:Dirks, Douglas
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:The new meaning of meetings.
Next Article:Reaching the technical audience: sometimes it's not easy.

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