Meetings: Skype or Yahoo?

When Dadamac started to have regular UK-Nigeria team meetings we used Yahoo. (It was the natural choice, because people in the team already knew Yahoo and had Yahoo IDs.) Then we had problems with the reliability of Yahoo and moved over to Skype instead. (By then some people were using - or trying to use - Skype for transnational voice chats, so the interface was not completely unfamiliar.) This week, when we gathered at our various locations ready for our online session, Skype had a glitch, which seriously interupted the business of the meeting. That glitch prompts this consideration of what we had chosen for our meetings, and why, and what plan we should have to be better prepared for future glitches.

We started with Yahoo for our online meetings, because most of our people in Africa had Yahoo IDs. This is because cyber cafes offer Yahoo. A Yahoo email address is a natural starting point for people using email in Africa. Learning to use instant messaging is a fairly natural follow up. Many people prefer it to emails.

Where download speeds are bad, it can be more effective to pre-arrange a meeting time, and use it for an instant messaging session, rather than sending emails. With luck, you can develop the habit of being online the same time as your friends are likely to be online at their nearest cyber cafes. You look out for each other on yahoo when you go online, and chat. If you find several of them you may well have several overlapping instant messaging chats, catching up with any number of friends before your session at the cyber cafe runs out.

Several overlapping chats can be much more effective than trying to download a number of emails, painfully slowly, and then replying to them. It is more fun too. Another benefit is that if you are accustomed to the spoken word, rather than the written word, then instant messaging can be much more "culturally comfortable" than email. The exchange of short instant messages, back and forth, is like speech - but in writing. It is much more natural than composing a full email.

Once you are used to instant messaging (often more than one conversation at a time) then it becomes natural to get involved in group instant messaging - informal online typed conferences. Our online meetings grew from that kind of experience of group instant messaging.

It is worth realising that, as a group, when we came together to use instant messaging for our online meetings, we had never had the luxury of all meeting face to face, or having an effective postal service, or being able to make phone calls. In fact when our UK-Nigeria contact by email first began there was no phone service in rural Nigeria, and sending an email involved a long journey to the nearest city. Things are easier now. By the time we started our online meetings, there was an established VSAT connection to Fantsuam, some people had met face to face (some worked together regularly), some exchanged emails, some used instant messaging, John and Pam had each others mobile phone numbers and occasionally sent texts - but did not use voice (they only spoke on the phone if John was in the UK).

As we got in the habit of having regular UK-Nigeria team meetings using Yahoo we gradually developed strategies to give the meetings structure and help achieve the objectives. However, last year Yahoo was being a bit unreliable and people would find that their connection had suddenly dropped during the meeting. The interruption was often very short and people could quickly rejoin when the connection was working again - but it meant they had missed a bit of the meeting. As a result, to help people to catch up again after an interrupted connection, a lot of cutting and pasting of previous chat went on during meetings.

Skype seemed a lot more stable. Various people were using it (usually just between two people at a time). Usually people went on Skype with the intention of having a voice conversation, but often bandwidth problems made that unrealistic and at least one of the two would have to type instead of talking. Sometimes both would type. So, when Yahoo became unstable, it was natural to try typed Skype for the group meetings instead. 

We found that we preferred Skype for several reasons. It was definitely more stable; once people were in the conference they stayed there. Even better, everyone who was invited could see everything that had been typed - even if they actually arrived when the meeting was well under way - and even if they couldn't get online until after it had finished. We liked the history feature of Skype too. We always try to keep a copy of the meeting for our records. When yahoo was unstable we would repeatedly copy and paste while the conversation was under way to make sure nothing would be lost. (Perhaps Yahoo did have some kind of automatic history function - but we were not aware of it). With Skype, its conversation history feature was obvious and excellent; we had no trouble keeping records of the meetings.  

This week when things went wrong we suddenly realised how much we had started to take it for granted that our meetings would run smoothly. We had started to assume that the technology would work and the people would be there. When it failed to work we remembered suddenly how we had tackled things in the early days of our weekly meetings.

Back then, we had had two problems - one was getting the technology to work, and the other was to get people to turn up to scheduled meetings. There are cultural issues around this - a mixture   of the different cultural priorities regarding making unexpected visitors welcome (very high priority in Africa) - and a different attitude towards fixed schedules (high priority in UK, but with a more relaxed "African time" apprach in Nigeria). 

Visitors still often have to be given precedence over scheduled online meetings on the Africa side, but, if any of the team has to be called away from an online meeting to greet visitors, such interruption are handled in a much more organised way, the online meeting continues without them (and sometimes they are able to drop in and out while still "observing protocols" with the visitors. It is okay to take phone calls, and such like while showing visitors around).

Wednesday meetings usually start pretty much on time now. In the early days there used to be much sending of SMS messages, buzzing on yahoo, and asking people to go in search of others on the compound when it was time for a UK-Nigeria meeting to begin. Gradually enough people would be gathered online for the meeting to start. 

When there were problems with Skype this week we were reminded of the old days. Nikki (in the UK) invited everyone to the Skype chat as usual, but only Pam (in the UK) responded. We had got so used to Skype's reliability that at first the UK side feared there was "wahala" at Fantsuam, serious storm damage again perhaps, another serious road accident, or maybe some other health related tragedy.

We turned to whatever communication channels we had to hand. Pam and John sent texts to each other to find out what was happening - fortunately there was no serious "wahala" at Fantsuam. Kelechi and Pam managed some effective instant messaging through yahoo. A few people tried one-to-one Skype connections between UK and Nigeria, but only odd lines of text got through - Pam and Chollom's only came through after a delay of around 40 minutes. Nikki and Kelechi exchange some emails, copied to other members of the group. Some essential information was exchanged, in the hour or so we usually assign to our meetings, but most agenda items were carried forward to next week. We realised how much the team has changed - and so we set about collecting up yahoo IDs for the current team.

We'll try Skype again next week, but if it fails us in future we'll have plan B ready i.e. give up Plan A more quickly and all move over to our old meeting place at Yahoo.