• home

    Virtual Conferences: A New Way to Network


    The Internet offers new opportunities to join in international discussions without the disadvantages of costly and time-consuming travel.
    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 4/2000

    Small businesses in developing countries have been finding out where to go to bid for supplies at the best price worldwide, and how to avoid some of the commonest pitfalls of e-commerce, thanks to a conference organized by ITC in Switzerland. Conveniently, participants did not have to worry about getting there, since the conference took place by e-mail.

    Doing more with less

    Networking, long recognized as a useful tool for business, is taking on a new lease of life as the virtual world of the Internet offers new opportunities for international discussions without the disadvantages of costly and time-consuming travel.

    ITC has found that e-mail discussions can be particularly useful in providing a low-cost and efficient way of promoting debate between business in developing countries and trade development organizations.

    Extending the reach to a global audience

    A recent series of e-mail discussion forums on the challenges and opportu-nities offered to exporters in developing and transition economies by e-commerce attracted nearly 600 participants from 86 countries, some 80% of them from the developing world.

    ITC was determined to share the debate at its Executive Forum on Export Development in the Digital Economy, co-organized with the Swiss state secretariat for economic affairs, with as many people as possible. But at the same time, ITC wanted to limit the actual event to 24 teams of government and business leaders from developing countries, along with e-commerce experts, in order to keep the discussion fruitful.

    The e-mail debates enabled businesses in countries from Nepal to Peru, and Viet Nam to Kazakhstan, to share their experiences of e-commerce, from problems such as high telecom costs at home to useful solutions such as global supply auctions.

    Developing countries shaped the e-debate

    The three e-mail discussions served as a complement to the Executive Forum, and enabled interested parties all over the world to follow the live debate and offer their own comments on e-commerce issues. The debates were spread over three months and enabled participants to offer input before the Montreux discussions began and to continue exchanging ideas afterwards.

    The first discussion was held in early September, ahead of the Montreux event, and invited participants to provide

    national perspectives on electronic commerce, and share their ideas and experience in areas such as portal sites, e-commerce strategies, community awareness programmes, and training programmes for small and medium-sized enterprises.

    Input ranged across the globe, from the United States to India, Zambia to Russia, and included upbeat success stories of national e-commerce portals or computer literacy programmes, and cautionary tales about the problems of trying to do e-business in countries where access to telecom services is neither universal nor cheap. One participant also stressed the value of offering sites in several languages, so as not to limit potential customers or partners to a single, perhaps small, language group.

    The second e-mail discussion took place during the forum, and linked e-mail participants from around the world to the live discussions in Montreux. Summaries of the Montreux discussion sessions were posted within hours so that e-mail participants could provide immediate feedback. Again, comments came from all over the world.

    The final session, in November, focused on identifying how to develop these ideas into action and finding partners who might be interested in helping e-commerce development on a national, regional or international level.

    The debates offered ITC a vision of the needs of would-be e-commerce exporters in the developing world, right down to basic questions such as where to start. But there were also some red flags, notably on the need for balanced information in a wildly fluctuating and emerging digital economy. This included calls for the media to limit excessively positive articles about electronic commerce, and to steer clear of buzzwords such as "market-space" and "Internet pure plays".

    Behind-the-scenes planning

    The experience proved the usefulness of virtual networking, but also offered a series of lessons in how to ensure that such exercises are successful. In fact, planning, tight organization and follow-up are just as important in the virtual world as in a conference hall.

    Most critical is to have a clear focus for the discussion, which not only ensures that the debate remains on track, but ensures visibility and support from staff and management. In this case, the topic was export development and the digital economy.

    ITC took care to ensure that it targeted a clearly defined group of participants, focusing on developing countries, for the e-mail discussion. One of its biggest successes was in securing collaboration among staff by encouraging them to invite their own contacts to register, using a short e-mail announcement that they could forward. Staff targeted groups such as ser-vices exporting associations, purchasing associations, trade development organizations in developing countries, e-commerce experts, and participants from ITC's Executive Forum, with a mix of business, government and academia.

    The wide geographical and national spread of the e-mail participants, for many of whom English was not their first language, highlighted the need for basic ground rules such as keeping language simple and messages brief.

    E-mail vs web

    E-conferences on the web are not that uncommon, but conferences by e-mail are fairly unusual. Yet they have distinct advantages. For instance, rather than simply setting up a web site, participants automatically receive new contributions to the debate in their mailbox, rather than having to keep clicking on a web site to find out what was going on or to put in their own comments - something most people are too busy to do during their working day.

    But using the web as a reference point remains useful. To ensure that the ideas and suggestions are not lost, ITC posted discussions from the e-mail sessions on a special web site.

    The e-discussions are available on ITC's Executive Forum web site (http://www.intracen.org/execforum/)

    Seven tips for a successful e-mail discussion

    • Aims. Determine in advance what the aims of the discussion are, and how they contribute to the organization's strategic goals. This will ensure visibility and support from staff and management.

    • Invitations. Assemble group e-mails by category and send off short announcements. Conduct research and use your networking skills to determine to whom you will send the announcements. Encourage contacts to pass invitations to their networks.
    • Promotion. Encourage participation through web, print and live announcements, as well as web links.
    • Content. Keep it focused. 'Chat' groups do not retain the interest of busy professionals. Let participants know what the collective aims are, and keep the discussion on track.

    Make it easy for people to read. Group contributions by theme, and cut out jargon and verbosity.

    Don't forget to provide general information such as the aims of the discussion, total number of participants and where they come from.
    • Ground rules. This is a new medium. Guide people on what to expect and how to interact. For example, tell participants in advance to write simply and concisely, and spell out what kind of contributions you are looking for. Encourage bilateral networking by listing the name, organization and e-mail with each contribution.
    • Technical issues. Remember to set up a listserve automatic mailing list to ensure all participants receive all the e-mails sent in to the debate, deal with bounced e-mails, manage incoming requests, forward contributions to moderators, and post approved comments. Put registration forms into a pre-defined database. Monitor how many people are in the discussion, and from which countries. Set up a system to help people register.
    • Follow-up. Report results of the event. Send participants by mail copies of relevant publications. Also, post the e-mail discussions on a web site for future reference.

    Lessons learned by Natalie Domeisen and Sarah McCue, co-moderators of ITC's recent e-mail discussions on the subject of e-trade for developing countries.

    Getting the word out

    This is adapted from an article in the latest OECD Observer magazine (Rory Clarke, Editor-in-Chief and Sue Kendall-Bilicki, Senior Editor). ITC encourages joint publishing and redissemination arrangements with partners.