Daniel Berleant and Byron Liu
E-mail -- the Cinderella of cyberspace. In the excitement of the World Wide Web of hyperlinked multimedia spanning the globe, it's easy to lose sight of ordinary e-mail, which, like the Web, is built on the enabling infrastructure of the Internet. Surely, e-mail will continue to play a major role in our daily business.
Considering the importance and ubiquity of e-mail, it's surprising that it is not more widely used for formal group decision making -- that is, structured business meetings, or more formally, "deliberative assemblies." This is as true in 2006 as it was when the first version of this article appeared back in 1995. Later hopes of providing initial guidelines and motivating further work, we offer some considerations regarding rules of order for conducting e-mail meetings.
While much has been written on rules of etiquette for e-mail, bulletin board postings, and other forms of electronic communication,   little attention has focused on rules of order for e-mail meetings, analogous to the traditional rules of order for face-to-face meetings. The need for electronically mediated group work has led to important results in group decision support software, electronic conferencing, and software for storing and accessing institutional knowledge. An obvious example is Lotus Notes. Nevertheless, there is still a need for rules of order to guide groups in conducting decision-making meetings using nothing more than ordinary e-mail.
Traditionally, meetings have been guided by smaller or larger subsets of Robert's Rules of Order since the book first appeared over a century ago. E-mail, however, is obviously a unique medium with its own distinctive characteristics (see sidebar). We're proposing updates to the latest edition of Robert's Rules that are needed to hold meetings by e-mail. We specify only some of the more important updates; a complete exposition is beyond the scope of this brief discussion. However, those familiar enough with the rudiments of Robert's Rules to conduct an ordinary face-to-face meeting should find the following a useful start in successfully conducting a meeting by e-mail.
As the following is limited, these guidelines should be supplemented by related material in the current edition of Robert's Rules, indicated by the references in the section headings below.
Quorum [Robert's (S3, S39)]. For an e-mail message to be part of a meeting, it must be sent to all members (with the exception of returned ballots). Other messages may be sent for caucusing or other off-line discussion, but these are not officially part of the meeting.
For a vote to be valid in the context of an e-mail meeting, a quorum of ballots must be returned. Unless otherwise provided for, this quorum is one half. This need for a vote quorum results from the fact that it is harder to know who is following an e-mail meeting than who is attending a face-to-face meeting; hence, the concept of a quorum based on attendance is less applicable to e-mail meetings.
An equipment malfunction among the membership that significantly interferes with reading, writing, or delivering e-mail requires the chair to recess or adjourn the meeting without a vote. E-mail meetings shall not be held when equipment malfunction is a significant hindrance.
Call to order [Robert's (S3)]. An e-mail meeting is called to order with a message from the chair containing a "subject" (or equivalent) line stating "Call to order" and a body beginning with "The e-mail meeting will come to order."
The call-to-order message should explain which meeting has been called to order, because unlike attendees at ordinary meetings, members may be participating in multiple simultaneous e-mail meetings.
Minutes [Robert's (S3)]. Minutes consist of the full transcript of the meeting, comprising all of the e-mail messages that were part of it. Their accuracy can usually be assumed, so minutes need not be read or approved in e-mail meetings.
Floor [Robert's (S3)]. In face-to-face meetings, obtaining the floor prevents more than one person from speaking at the same time and gives various members a chance to be heard. Obtaining the floor is typically an arbitration process and is unnecessary in e-mail meetings because messages can be sent simultaneously by different members. In an e-mail meeting, the floor is trivially and implicitly obtained simply by sending an e-mail message to the membership, and rules of order for obtaining the floor are generally unnecessary.
Voting [Robert's (S4)]. When issues are decided by a vote, all voters may have to be present in the same room at the same time, as when secret ballots must be counted in the presence of the membership. However, a vote by e-mail shall be acceptable unless explicitly disallowed. To conduct an e-mail vote, a ballot is sent to the voting membership stating exactly what is to be voted on and containing at the beginning a clearly designated place for the member to mark a vote. The subject line (or equivalent) should contain the term "ballot."
The simplest kind of vote is the consensus vote. The ballot specifies that only nay votes need be returned. No nay votes means the measure is approved, so no vote quorum applies.
If a vote is to be counted, the ballot should clearly designate the choices. Here are two hypothetical examples:
I vote ________ (fill in "yes," "no," or leave blank).
I vote for ____________ (fill in "Jones," "Miller," "Wang," or leave blank).
In a verbose public vote, each voter e-mails a completed ballot to all members. In a terse public vote, completed ballots are returned to the sender. Voting may be conducted by the chair, the secretary, or the voting commissioner. The votes for each option are tabulated to produce a report that accompanies the announcement of the result. This report is sent after a deadline (by default, one full business day after ballot distribution). Ballots returned after the deadline but received before the report is sent are valid votes and must be included in the report.
Secret balloting may be conducted by the voting commissioner, who must be trusted to maintain the confidentiality of the ballots and to count them reliably. Alternatively, special software can be used for balloting, or a brief, appropriately scheduled face-to-face balloting session may be needed.
Voting commissioner [Robert's (S46)]. Voting in e-mail meetings can be more complex than in face-to-face meetings, so it may be desirable to establish the office of voting commissioner. This person distributes ballots, receives and counts returned ballots, and announces results. The voting commissioner's integrity must be trusted if the office is to be a help rather than a hindrance to the conduct of the meeting.
ELECTRONIC MAIL USE IS INCREASING, and decision-making meetings conducted by e-mail have significant advantages over meetings that require assembling the membership at the same time and in the same place. We have presented some of the essential modifications for applying Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised to e-mail meetings, and we invite those interested in completing this process to participate in an e-mail meeting for this purpose by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniel Berleant is an associate professor of Information Science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (as of June, 2006).
Byron Liu received a master's degree in computer systems engineering at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
Correspondence can be addressed to email@example.com.
Significant differences between electronic mail and face-to-face communication affect interaction and impact the rules of order for e-mail meetings. These differences result in both advantages and disadvantages for e-mail meetings.
Ron Vetter, North Dakota State University, IACC Bldg., Rm. 258, Fargo, ND 58105-5164; phone (701) 231-7084; Internet, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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