You want to meet. The other party wants to meet. You have a common interest in meeting. You’ve agreed to meet, but now you have to work out the logistics. How many emails and/or phone calls will it take to set it up?
A recent 90-minute meeting with someone from another company took a total of fifteen (15) emails back-and-forth and two phone calls to set up, over the space of a few days.
I won’t bore you with details, which included working with both of my counterpart’s personal assistants, each based in a different country, and reacting to changing travel plans. This was an extreme case, but not by much.
The negotiations in this case were so mechanical, that they could almost have been conducted automatically by computer. It was therefore a relative waste of my time to have to deal with the numerous volleys of messages. My counterpart was insulated from this time- and attention-consuming process by his assistants, who conducted the logistical negotiations on his behalf. However, it’s a great pity if this is what PA’s are really for, especially because having a go-between also adds its own overhead to the process. Now imagine how many more messages would have been required if I had a PA too! It almost defeats the whole purpose.
Microsoft Exchange and similar systems provide a rather rudimentary method of time-slot negotiation; one side may see when the other party is free, and then send them an invitation, which is then accepted, rejected or returned with a suggested alternative time. Even these systems don’t work unless all parties are from the same company.
At first glance, it shouldn’t be too difficult to rig together a system that would allow our computers to negotiate this sort of meeting. An idealized meeting negotiation agent would have to know, or be able to ask you if necessary:
- when you prefer to have your meetings
- where you plan to be on each day (time-zone / country / city)
- where you prefer to have your meetings on each day — are you tied to your office? Can you get away for lunch? Are you able to travel to the other party’s office?
Unfortunately, the above information is rather hard to pin down accurately, and it’s quite volatile. The problem here is not so much a software problem, rather it is how to get software to learn what our preferences are and to use this knowledge to arrive at the same decisions as we humans would make.
I suspect that it will be quite some time before computers can save us time in this way, although this negotiation process can definitely be streamlined significantly with a few rather simple improvements, which would hopefully eliminate a whole class of messages from our inboxes.