The Law of Meeting Coordination and Metcalfe's Law are important concepts that impacts Email overload and media competencies.
This phrase was developed as a result of the work James and his team was performing on a project at the time. They noted that if you wanted to organize a scheduled meeting via Email, the number of messages required to coordinate the meeting was roughly the square of the number of participants.
They developed a formula for the Law of Meeting Coordination:
(where: MV = Message Volume, P = Participants
Therefore, to coordinate a meeting with 2 people will take 4 messages, but with 10 people involved, will result in 100 back-and-forth Email exchanges between participants to select a meeting date, time and location.
I was able to locate James through the wonders of Google and exchanged a few messages about the origin of his term and formula. It appears that this concept was developed based on anecdotal observations they made while working on their collaboration project.
Although there did not appear to be any significant empirical data or detailed testing performed in the formulation of the Law of Meeting Coordination, I was intrigued enough about the concept to do a bit of sleuthing myself.
It occurred to me that what James was describing reminded me of some of the fundamentals of telecommunication network theory that I had learned many ages ago during my graduate studies.
Network Communication theory describes the transmission of information in a communications network; each communicator/recipient is a node and each potential communication path is a link.
As more nodes are added, the number of potential links increases geometrically. In fact, in a communications network with n members, each can make (n-1) connections with other participants, so the total potential links in the network is proportional to n(n-1), or (roughly) n^2.
The network communication concept can easily be extended to e-mail communications if you substitute users for nodes and e-mail transmissions for the links of the network.
A bit of additional research discovered that there is actually a famous network communications concept called Metcalfe’s law (attributed to Robert Metcalfe – co-inventor of Ethernet and founder of 3Com). According to Metcalfe’s law, the value of a network goes up proportionally as the square of the number of users.
Although Metcalfe’s law focuses more on network value as opposed to actual communications, it is by many considered one of those famous rules of thumb in communication theory. It describes how communications value and capabilities grow geometrically as a function of user participation.
So what is the implication of the Law of Meeting Coordination and Metcalfe’s law to Email overload?
As many of us have experienced, long e-mail chains that contain multiple participants can quickly grow in size, frequency and complexity.
Recipients will respond to other recipients, often repeating (or even contradicting) responses already made (or shortly to be made). The end result is a tremendous number of challenging Emails between those unlucky enough to remain copied on the message chain.
To alleviate Email back-forths, follow these best practices:
- Determine who really needs to be copied on the messages and remove all other unnecessary participants from the Email chain completely.
- Ensure that each person that is copied on the message understand if they have a specific action that is required, or if they are just being copied for informational purposes.
- Keep the message text short, concise, and action oriented.
- Once the Email chain has reached a certain number of back-forths (6 or so is my typical “cut-off” point), send out a note that you are scheduling a meeting or conference call in order for all participants to discuss and work through the issue in real time and to no longer Email on this issue.
What is your experience with meetings?
Hendler, James, and Jennifer Golbeck. "Metcalfe's law, Web 2.0, and the Semantic Web." Web Semantics: Science, Services and Agents on the World Wide Web 6.1 (2008): 14-20.
Gilder, George. "Metcalf’s law and legacy." Forbes ASAP 27 (1993).
Brito, Nuno. "Stop, Look and Listen before you talk."