United Nations System-Wide
  Earthwatch Working Party 3
New York, 17-18 January 1996
Working Paper  UNEP/EWWP3/6

1. With the increasing pressure to reduce the number of meetings, there is a need to replace physical meetings as far as possible with electronic forms of communication. However, each form of communication has its advantages and limitations, and it is important to assess whether, and to what extent, physical meetings can be replaced by "virtual" electronic meetings. This means analysing what meetings actually do and how they work in practice, whether the present state of information technologies can replace all or part of these functions, and how a virtual Earthwatch Working Party might work in practice.

The role of meetings

2. Meetings play a particular function in the processes of consultation and decision-making. They require a significant time commitment, and perhaps a financial commitment if travel is involved, from each participant, forcing full concentration upon the subject for an extended period. This includes preparing and reading documentation in advance of the meeting, participating in dynamic discussions involving information exchange, collective exploration and evolution of new ideas, group evaluation and consensus building, leading to accepted conclusions. For overloaded UN officials, meetings may be the only way to get their full attention and effective input.

3. Meetings are formally structured with an agenda, working papers, informal documents to try to work towards consensus, a distillation of the discussion and conclusions into a draft report with decisions/recommendations, and formal approval of the report. The official documentation is a permanent record of the meeting, and may give authority to future actions. Electronic communications tend to be ephemeral, and do not have the authority at present of real meetings between decision-makers.

4. The Earthwatch Working Party is the principal coordinating and decision-making mechanism in the UN system-wide Earthwatch, permitting all partner agencies and organizations to be informed of the issues, to contribute their viewpoints, and to reach consensus on the form and direction that Earthwatch should take. This decision-making process and the continuing information exchange, discussion and cross-linking that underlie it, are what give substance to the system-wide Earthwatch. In a complex institutional framework like the UN system, the best analogy might be with a jazz band. Each organization is like one of the players with a special instrument, the Earthwatch mandate is like a piece of music which governments have asked us to perform, with each player improvising on their own part, and Earthwatch coordination is like the conductor, responsiblefor assuring collaborative joint efforts so that the result is a harmonious performance pleasing to the audience. We must be aware of the role that personal contact, as opposed to information exchange, plays in the effectiveness of this process.

5. It is important that the move to electronic communications strengthen and improve Earthwatch, and that nothing essential is lost. In particular, we must manage the transition so that those who are not yet adequately connected electronically are not excluded from participating, and that the old forms of operating are not abandoned before the new technologies are fully ready to replace them. Forms of hybrid operation with both old and new working in parallel will be necessary for some time to come.

Pros and cons of electronic networking

6. Internet technologies have great potential, but also obvious limitations. Practical experience suggests that a busy official's electronic in-basket fills up as quickly as the paper one. There is still a considerable percentage of electronic messages that vanish in the system, so that the reliability of communications is not assured. There are often delays of hours or days in the delivery of messages internationally, so that any process of dialogue or interchange is stretched out in time. The technology is more appropriate for short communications than lengthy texts (which may be a useful discipline in this day of information overload).

7. Those partners without adequate internet connectivity would have to be included in any exchange through hard copies or diskettes by pouch or fax. Many of those with e-mail are still not fully accustomed to electronic communication, as shown by some of the receipts from Earthwatch focal points that arrive one or two months later. There are problems of incompatibilities in document transfer between different word processing programmes and even between versions of the same programme. Some parts of the UN system are still on WordPerfect 5.1/5.2 and others on version 6 (not back compatible), while there are islands of committed Word users. Everyone will have to invest time and effort in adopting the new forms of communication, and any who do not will be left aside to some extent. If we are not careful, these practical problems could have institutional and functional implications.

8. Video-conferencing may come the closest to replacing physical meetings, but most parts of the UN system are not yet equipped, and there will always be the problem of scheduling to adapt to many time zones around the world. It is not certain that video-conferencing can replace all the human dynamics of an actual meeting, such as discussions in the corridors, that contribute to their success. This technology would still seem to be some years away from practical application in Earthwatch.

9. In particular, if electronic communications are to replace meetings, the participants will have to make significant time commitments, and adopt some of the same forms of organization and discipline that are accepted standards in meetings. It may take some time to adapt these procedures to electronic exchange in efficient ways.

A virtual Earthwatch Working Party

10. The following is a possible scenario for a virtual Earthwatch Working Party, as it might have to operate with present internet technology.

11. The Earthwatch Coordination office would propose an annotated meeting agenda on the list server for any additions and modifications. Each Earthwatch focal point would respond agreeing to the agenda with comments, and in particular indicating for each agenda item the name, position and e-mail address of persons in their organization who should participate in, or receive information copies of, the exchange on each agenda item. The secretariat would compile these into a group for each agenda item, and propose a discussion leader, as a kind of electronic participants list. This would allow each agenda item to be addressed to a tailor-made sub-group on a special list server. A working paper or papers would then be distributed for each agenda item, followed by an electronic discussion group moderated by the leader for a set period of time (perhaps up to a month to allow for those with other commitments, missions or leave). The discussion leader for each item would prepare a summary report with a proposed conclusion or decision, and these would be compiled by the secretariat into a draft meeting report. The draft report would be distributed to all the focal points for a policy-level review, and subject to a further round of electronic discussions at their level, leading to adoption of the report by consensus. The complete meeting documentation, including official working papers, report and list of participants, would then be posted on the World Wide Web and distributed in printed form as appropriate.

12. Such a virtual meeting would take two to three months to complete. If this is just seen as adding to information overload and is thus ignored by a significant number of participants, it will fail. However, if the Earthwatch partners really invest in this form of exchange, it could involve more of their organization more effectively in joint planning and programming within Earthwatch by delegating parts of the discussion as appropriate. The result would be a concrete output with the same weight and authority as a meeting report, reflecting a system-wide consensus.

13. A virtual Earthwatch Working Party as described above will only be practical when the majority of Earthwatch focal points are effectively connected to and participating on the internet. This is not the case today, judging from the number of e-mail addresses the Earthwatch Coordination office has been able to obtain. The Working Party may wish to keep this situation under review and decide when an electronic meeting could be attempted.

Return to homepage

UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination, Geneva