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The 2022 edition of this essential collection development tool for health sciences libraries of all sizes represents the collective wisdom of almost 200 medical librarians and content experts on the must-have titles in 121 specialties! You may order Doody's Core Titles 2022 by Clicking Here.
Going Remote: Making the MLA InSight Summit 5 a Virtual Success
 
Tim Butzen, MLIS
Operations Director
Doody Enterprises, Inc.
On March 16-17, 2020, Doody Consulting facilitated Summit 5 of the Medical Library Association (MLA) InSight Initiative, which brought together 25 librarians and health information providers to continue their work on establishing solutions for vexing problems affecting the health information community. Originally scheduled as an in-person meeting in downtown Chicago, concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant travel bans challenged MLA and Doody Consulting to quickly move the meeting to a virtual space. This article summarizes how we facilitated a successful virtual meeting, and the takeaways for librarians and other health information professionals who may be faced with the same situation.

The Process

The summit had been in the planning stages for many months before the tough decision was made just one week out to convert the meeting to a virtual format. The program committee had already approved the agenda for the in-person meeting. Two looming questions we had to answer were: (1) How do we bring participants together in one digital space smoothly and clearly; and (2) How do we modify and adhere to a schedule that cultivates the greatest value for attendees – including adhering to plans for several small-group breakout meetings?

Answering the first question was straightforward. MLA licenses Zoom software for their regular web conferencing needs, so this was a cost-effective and practiced solution. At previous summits, Zoom had been used to conference with members of the End User Advisory Board from around the United States. By mid-March, Zoom staff were already monitoring and responding to increasing capacity demands due to the COVID-19 outbreak, so our concerns about bringing a large group together were mostly abated. MLA Executive Director Kevin Baliozian served as the Zoom administrator and tested the software in advance of the meeting. Finally, and most consequentially, Zoom’s breakout rooms allowed us to successfully facilitate the small-group work that defined the purpose of this summit.

The second question was a bit more challenging to address. Originally, conference attendees had committed to participating in a two-day summit, totaling 15.5 hours of summit activity. Even though no one would be traveling to Chicago and many attendees would be feeling the heightened impact of COVID-19 in their libraries, organizations, and families, we decided to run the conference on both days. The revised schedule covered 12.5 hours yet maintained a focus on small-group work time. We tried to ensure our success by:
  • publishing the schedule with each attendee’s time zone so they could easily sync the events to their calendar;
  • sharing a "Tips for a Successful Virtual Meeting" checklist to help attendees prepare for full participation in the meeting;
  • building in substantial break times and encouraging small-group leaders to break as needed;
  • embedding summit facilitators in each breakout room to ensure fluid communication among groups; and
  • scheduling “intergroup mingling” to simulate what it would be like to have each group working separately in a single space.
Despite our best efforts, we ultimately had to alter the published schedule as priorities shifted. Lastly, we found that the spontaneous camaraderie, networking, and discussion that emerge during shared meals and cocktail receptions simply could not be authentically reproduced in a virtual environment.

The Takeaways

Overall, the summit was a success. With under a week to convert the meeting to a virtual conference, the delivery and outcomes exceeded our expectations.

Here’s a summary of what worked well as determined by attendees:
  • Having a clear agenda: Aside from the schedule, the small groups had clear goals they needed to accomplish coming into this summit. A virtual format would not have worked as well for previous summits aimed at brainstorming and ideation.
  • Established rapport: Because summit attendees had participated together in two previous summits and had been working remotely in small groups before the virtual meeting, rapport building didn’t need to occur. Doing so would have been very difficult via a web conference (and without those meals!).
  • Breakout rooms: These were an excellent feature of the Zoom software and proved indispensable for seamlessly managing the flow from the whole group to small groups. These could also be used to simulate “table hopping” or shuffling participants after different conference sessions.
  • Designating a single facilitator: Having a sole individual to manage the conferencing technology and serve as the overall facilitator of the schedule was ideal.
  • Group size: The virtual meeting worked well for a group our size, but it is hard to envision it working well with a group much larger than 30.
  • Travel wasn’t an option: This virtual meeting was the best alternative during a time when many attendees could not travel. We were reminded that when professionals are “out of office” but really “working from home,” it can be difficult to set up the boundaries that traveling away affords.
  • Flexibility: Summit facilitators and attendees alike came to this virtual meeting with optimism and adaptability. Knowing we were all in the same boat afforded us comfort in this unfamiliar terrain. People were able to step away or join in with ease.
Attendees suggested some considerations for next time:
  • Staggered or shorter schedule: It may make sense to shorten the meeting when possible or stagger conference times between morning and afternoons (e.g., Monday morning and Tuesday afternoon). Note: Keep time zones in mind when making this decision.
  • Webcam availability and connectivity: Not everyone was able to use a webcam. One attendee noted her organization prohibited her from using webcams at work, so she had to participate in the conference from home. Additionally, the added bandwidth needed to stream cameras on home internet networks caused audio and visual disruptions for some attendees.
  • Staying focused and engaged; limiting fatigue: This wasn’t a problem for the conference as a whole, but attendees reported facing these challenges individually. Scheduling smaller chunks of time for each session, limiting small group time, and varying whole group activities and discussions will likely help with this in the future. It also will help that the next virtual conference won’t be hosted amid a global pandemic (hopefully).
We certainly aren’t unique in facing the challenge of making an in-person meeting virtual. We hope our experience can help librarians and others achieve success in their next virtual conference.

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