The voting's fast, vast and so anonymous

New technology has improved meetings at Price Waterhouse, says Malcolm Wheatley
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It's 5pm, and the partners' meeting is drawing to a close. The senior partner comes to the last agenda item, briefly summarises the situation, and invites his colleagues to contribute their opinions. For several minutes, no one speaks - but fingers dance across keyboards, and words scroll up computer screens. "We're all agreed then? Good. Let's vote on it." Again, fingers return to keyboards.

Accountants are not normally noted for the zest with which they embrace radical new technologies and innovative ways of working. In adopting the internal e-mail and collaborative working software Lotus Notes as long ago as 1990, Price Waterhouse is reckoned to have blazed a trail that others are only now beginning to catch up on. The firm is still one of the largest Notes users in the world, with more than 38,000 staff and partners connected.

But has Price Waterhouse now pulled off yet another technology first? The sniggers that accompanied the adoption of Notes can certainly be heard again, as the firm has enthusiastically launched itself into using a software system that at first appears even wackier and more futuristic than Notes did five years ago. Yet the software, known as GroupSystems, has impeccable academic credentials, having been developed by the creativity and communications pioneer Professor Jay Nunamaker of the University of Arizona. It is also used by a raft of blue-chip US companies, including Boeing, IBM, Hewlett- Packard and AT&T. US government institutions such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the army are also converts.

"Meetings and workshops are a growing part of what we do," says Simon Fance, project manager at Price Waterhouse. "It's important to maximise their effectiveness." The idea behind the software is to replace verbal contributions and whiteboards with typed contributions - generally anonymous. At the end of the meeting there is thus a written record of everything that went on - so obviating the need for separately formulated minutes. Nor do all the participants have to be there in the flesh: people can log into the meeting remotely, thus saving travelling time and expenses.

Another advantage is that the quality of meetings can improve. Participants tend to say what they want to say rather than what is politically acceptable: "No one dominates the meetings and all the participants leave feeling that they have had an opportunity to express themselves," says Mr Fance.

"We now get the real issues out on the table and leave the politics behind," adds Mike Maskall, director of international taxation services.

So impressed is the firm that it is rolling out the software to clients as well. "We find the software unlocks innovation in an organisation and drives it to action."

Price Waterhouse seems to have coped well with the transition, according to Mr Fance. "Around 500 people within the firm have used the software," he says. And, reportedly, only a few brought their secretaries along to type things in for them. "They soon realised that they'd made a mistake."

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