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How Not to Put on an International Meeting

Some lessons learned from a conference during COVID.

The Naturalistic Decision Making community has been holding conferences roughly every two years since 1989. The conferences rotate between the U.S. and Europe. The last one was in San Francisco in 2019, so this one was slated to be in Europe on June 21-24, 2021 — in Toulouse, France.

At least that was the plan in the winter of 2020/2021.

As you can anticipate, the plan didn’t quite work out. Looking back, I have trouble believing the different ways we loaded the deck against ourselves. I was one of the three primary organizers, along with Ivonne Herrera (Resilience Engineering Association) and Jean Paries (FONCSI), and a core team of a dozen people meeting online every month, wondering what we had bitten off.

First, we were holding this meeting in Europe, which means that the planning and coordination were going to be more difficult for the NDM community members who are mostly located in the U.S.

Second, we decided to combine forces rather than go it alone, as we have always done up to now. For this conference, we joined forces with the Resilience Engineering Association, and also with two French safety consortiums. So that was going to increase the coordination costs even more.

And then the pandemic hit — a third barrier and the most challenging one. As a result, we weren’t sure if we were going to cancel the meeting (as was happening quite often to other organizations), or continue with the usual face-to-face format, or conduct the meeting online, or arrange for some sort of a hybrid face-to-face plus online. We went almost a year in this decision limbo, from March 2020 to March 2021. The lack of closure created confusion among the conference organizers and uncertainty for the attendees.

By January 2021, we knew we wouldn’t be doing the conference entirely face-to-face. Many countries were in lockdown. Therefore, we took that option off the table. We still believed we could run the meeting online, so we weren’t going to cancel. By March, we decided that it was going to be a hybrid format, with some attendees traveling to Toulouse, primarily those living in France, and the rest online. However, the hybrid format was going to be more complicated than any of the others.

And to make the hybrid format even more complicated, three nodes sprang up, one in Columbus Ohio, one in Brazil, and one in Australia. Each node was face-to-face. If you are confused by this point, so were we.

Because participants were joining from around the world (and the nodes spanned different time zones than the Toulouse site), the logistics of scheduling became very difficult. We adhered to Central European Time, which meant that each day started at 9:00am CET or 3:00am EDT.

Yet another complication was the use of EasyChair, an app for conducting online meetings. Virtually no one was familiar with EasyChair and it turned out to be less intuitive than we imagined. For those who have been honing our Zoom skills for the past 18 months, EasyChair was a major source of frustration. Adding to that frustration, some sessions shifted between EasyChair and Zoom. Plus a few last-minute changes in the schedule didn’t help.

And yet, the conference came off and was a success. Communities that extolled the virtues of resilience and adaptation got to demonstrate what these capabilities looked like in real time. Even some of the glitches turned out well. By the third day of the meeting, when a software glitch would arrive, or a connectivity glitch, or an EasyChair glitch, the session leads and the support staff were ready to quickly solve the problem. A feeling of satisfaction and confidence took over, replacing anxiety and even panic.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would have changed just about each of these decisions. Hindsight makes these kinds of calls easier. I would have been tempted to use Eastern Daylight Time for the schedule. I would have quickly rejected the options to cancel or postpone the meeting, and I would have adopted the hybrid decision much earlier. And I would have tried to find a way to make Zoom or one of its competitors work, with supplementary apps, rather than expect everyone to shift to an entirely different system.

Finally, I am not sure if it was a good idea to add in the other communities; the NDM focus became diluted by adding the other communities although both REA and FONCSI made important contributions and made it much much easier to put this meeting on than if we had gone it alone. So I am ambivalent about this decision.

When the conference ended on Thursday, June 24, my emotional reaction was not elation or even relief but a pleased surprise — that none of the things I had worried about had happened. Or if they did, it was no big deal. I had a sense of unreality — we actually pulled this conference off. It had worked, despite the odds and the barriers. “We actually did it,” I thought, “who would have imagined.”

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