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‘Graphics’ Clients Rave Despite Potential Flaws

“This article originally appeared in the April 1998 issue of Consensus, a newspaper published jointly by the Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program.”

When a colleague suggested hiring a graphic recorder for an important meeting last summer, Laurie Davies Adams was skeptical.

“I thought it was a major expense,” says Adams, who owns a management consulting firm near San Francisco. “I couldn’t figure out why we should bother.”

Adams eventually agreed, however, and is very glad she did. “What happened [in the meeting] was quite magical,” she says. “I was just stunned at this graphic recording process…. It takes conversation and gives it a visual dimension that everyone can respond to.”

Adams is not alone in her enthusiasm. Other clients rave about the ah-hahs! that graphic recording elicits from meeting participants, the “richness” of the visual record, and the way a group “makes breakthroughs” more readily when a graphic recorder is present. One client even gushed about how graphic recording “reflects the inner soul of a meeting.”

Yikes. Can graphic recording really be that good?

Well, it seems many people think it is. But when pressed — and only when pressed — some also admit that graphic recording can have it’s downsides.

The cost of hiring a graphic recorder is one negative, as suggested by Adams’s initial reaction to the idea. It’s not that graphic recorders charge outrageous fees. In fact, they usually charge less than facilitators or mediators, according to facilitator Harlan Stelmach of Stelmach & Associates in Berkeley, Calif. It’s just that facilitators and graphic recorders often work in teams, so the facilitator can orchestrate the discussion while the recorder concentrates on capturing what’s being said. Thus, Stelmach explains, the client has to pay for two people, not just one.

(Some graphic recorders do record and facilitate meetings simultaneously, but that is less common.)

Nonetheless, Adams echoes other clients when she says that hiring a graphic recorder was, in retrospect, “well worth the money.”

Another potential drawback is that graphic recording can be distracting to meeting participants.

“It sometimes competes visually with the speaker,” says Channing Miller, a program manager with Hewlett Packard Company in Palo Alto, Calif., who uses graphic recorders for meetings of marketing managers from HP’s various business divisions. Miller notes that the amount of distraction depends upon how “physical” the graphic recorder is, and whether participants are used to the presence of a graphic recorder in a meeting.

How to distribute the graphic record to participants after a meeting is one more potential encumbrance, says Miller. It’s not as simple as writing up a meeting summary.

Miller now has distribution down to a science — although it helps that she has Hewlett Packard’s vast computer resources at her disposal. She scans the completed graphic record into a computer, imports it into Microsoft PowerPoint, and puts it on a Web site.

Martin Paley, founding director of the Center for the Common Good in Oakland, Calif., uses a less high-tech distribution method. At a blueprint processing shop, he has images on the large sheets of butcher paper reduced to 8 1/2-x-11-inch pages. He then mails copies to meeting participants.

Yet another disadvantage is the apparent lack of independent confirmation of the efficacy of graphic facilitation. Leslie Salmon-Zhu, a San Francisco-area graphic recorder who is familiar with many of the graphic facilitators throughout California, says she does not know of any academic or other independent analysis of the pros and cons of her field.

Despite these potential negatives, clients CONSENSUS interviewed said they would (or already plan to) hire graphic recorders again.

Well, if graphic recording can really “reflect the inner soul of a meeting,” why not?

                        author

Jennifer Thomas-Larmer

I write and edit sustainability and corporate responsibility reports for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Kellogg Company, Nike, Waste Management, Darden, Novelis, and International Flavors and Fragrances, among others. This work is done in collaboration with BuzzWord, a sustainability strategy and reporting firm (www.gobuzzword.com). Also, edit web content, reports,… MORE >

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