Efficiency and structure vs. emergence and perceived chaos

The most frequently cited reasons for the bad reputation of meetings are their inefficiency, their tedious structure and their long duration. Much of the self-help literature is therefore concerned with organizing them efficiently (cf. Section 1). Indeed, efficiency, including communicative efficiency, is one of the central concepts of management studies (Kleinberger Gunther 2003). Measuring it is, however, seen as challenging. Efficiency is most often conceived of as the ratio of result to effort. High efficiency therefore means operating with a minimum of effort to achieve a specific goal (cf. also Stahl and Menz 2014: 8-27). Recently, Dannerer (2005, 2008) has also reflected on communicative efficiency from a linguistic perspective. On the basis of authentic meetings, she has created a list of eleven characteristics of efficient communication. She includes the amount of time spent, the establishment of joint action goals, consistent processing, and the completion of action patterns, as well as factors such as the readiness to listen and the appropriate social and institutional conditions (e.g., the definition of roles and functions) (Dannerer 2008). The advantage of this approach is obvious. The criteria are empirically verifiable, as they are based on the analysis of authentic interaction data. Nevertheless, there are important reasons to further argue that ostensible efficiency (i.e., low resource costs) may not always be effective in the sense of optimal output, and that apparent inefficiency may have important advantages.

As early as 1999, Menz showed that, under certain circumstances, seemingly chaotic and unpredictable developments during a meeting can be to the company’s advantage because they allow problems to emerge which would otherwise remain undiscussed, and would certainly require more effort to resolve at a later stage (cf. also Menz 2011). Digressions may also be functional in the sense of building or maintaining relationships (Holmes and Stubbe 2003). Similarly, unplanned activities such as short pauses, which may emerge in the course of the interaction even when the participants have agreed to continue, need not inhibit the workflow because the participants continue to display their orientation to the agenda of the meeting despite the break (Deppermann, Schmitt, and Mondada 2010). This mutual orientation is not only displayed verbally, but also through other modes such as gaze direction, eye contact, and body signals.

Moreover, decision-making in meetings need not proceed in a structured and linear way, but can also be emergent and mundane, and so pass almost unnoticed. Indeed, highly structured decisions tend to be less durable than those reached through discussions that may be spiral and sometimes messy (Kwon, Clarke, and Wodak 2009; cf. also Section 3). Consequently, aiming for communicative efficiency and insisting on a strict structure is not always the best strategy in the long run.

Another reason why it may be important to embrace apparent inefficiency in communication is that companies have undergone greater transformations in the last 20 years than in many decades previously (Vachek 2008, 2009). These changes coincide with the emergence of post-bureaucratic organizations. These are characterized by the re-introduction of spontaneity (instead of routines), complexity (instead of disambiguation), and individuality (instead of strict compliance with rules). They are also marked by an increasing need for communication (Donnelon and Heckscher 1994; Iedema 2003: 15-19). In contrast to the strict compliance with rules, acceptance of hierarchy, and rationality, which are dominant in strictly structured organizations, post-bureaucratic organizations expect their members to have qualities such as spontaneity, initiative, commitment, enthusiasm, and pragmatic decision-making. Yet it is precisely these qualities that make meetings apparently messy and inefficient. A certain amount of vagueness, uncertainty, and underdetermination are thus prerequisites for the effective performance of such an organization. Consequently, as well as being structured, meetings need some apparent inefficiency, albeit at different stages in the communicative process (Menz 2011 and Section 6 below).

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