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Time-sharing System in Meetings

Centralized planning vs Free-market economy ?

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General description

Possibly the most fundamental resource during meetings is time -- the attention time of participants and how each uses that of others. The technique described here allows participants to use time resources more flexibly and democratically, and with less abuse or with fewer oppressive control structures used to deal with it.

Allocation of speaking time: The total time available for interventions during all sessions of the meeting is first estimated (eg 1000 minutes). Each participants is allocated an equal number of minutes. So 10 participants would initially have the possibility to speak for 100 minutes, for example.

Disproportionate allocation of speaking time: An alternative to such "equality" is to allocate some participants more time than others, if the organizers consider this appropriate. This could be because they are considered as having more to contribute or because some need to be encouraged or "handicapped". A key speaker might be given more beads to start with -- or might only contract to participate if given a certain time allocation of beads. Such a speaker might therefore be given a certain quantity of time beads (and no more) in addition to any monetary payment.

Time account: The time units allocated can be represented in an "account" set up for each participant in the meeting "time bank". Participants may choose to draw some (or all) of their allocation as time beads. These can take the physical form of coloured game counters (or "poppa-beads" which clip together into a chain or loop for carrying convenience, as widely used by the Club Mediterranée for beach cash). Beads of different colours can be used: 30 second beads, 1 minute beads, 5 minute beads, etc.

Payment for speaking time: During any given session a participant pays for the privilege of speaking to others. This is only possible if (s)he has credit to contribute to the "time sink". This can either take the form of physically transferring the required number of beads to a central spot (controlled by the time banker) or by allowing the timebanker to debit the participant's account. There is therefore a choice of "cash" or "charge".

No change: Note that cash transfers may not allow for "change" if the full time equivalent is not used (a 1 minute bead is required even though the person speaks for 45 seconds). However debiting an account can be done for the precise number of seconds if required. It depends how much precision is required.

Reallocation of time units: Participants are free to reallocate their own time units to another person. This may be done as a gift or on the basis of some agreement (such that the recipient would use the time in a certain way). Participants can of course pass on units they have received to others. Again such transfers may be by a physical transfer of time beads or by a request to the time banker to make the transfer (possibly without indicating the source). In this way participants acquire more right to speak according to how their contributions are valued as speaking "on behalf" of others.

Gifting a speaker: Following a particular intervention, some participants may choose visibly to indicate their agreement and appreciation by giving some time beads to the speaker, especially if that person has spoken on behalf of others.

Renunciation of right to speak: Participants are also free to renounce some (or all) of their right to speak by so declaring to the time banker -- if they do not want to reallocate their beads to other participants. Beads may be returned or the time banker can reduce the credit of the participant. The consequence of such renunciation is that the time value of the units still "in circulation" is proportionately increased. One time bead would then be worth more speaking time to the possessor.

Revaluation and devaluation: During the course of the meeting unforeseen incidents may introduce delays or session cancellations. The total time value of the units may now exceed the speaking time available. This may necessitate a devaluation. One time bead would then be worth less speaking time to the possessor. Similarly, if the meeting was lengthened by last minute introduction of an evening session, a revaluation would be necessary. One time bead would then be worth more speaking time to the possessor.

Accounting: The role of the time banker, in addition to keeping the time accounts of each participant, is to present periodically a time report. This indicates the current value of the time units in circulation and the situation of each participant's account (but not on the basis of the time beads the person may possess). It is also possible for participants, individually or collectively, to open anonymous accounts on which they only are free to draw andto which time units can be transferred (from other accounts).

Trading: Participants are free to trade time units amongst each other. Several participants may pool resources in support of a particularly strong interventionist (their "champion") -- or to confuse the situation by supporting a particularly weak one. Those with the skill to do so may explore the possibilities of a "futures" market in time, namely purchasing the right to speak at a later time.

Fines: Situations may arise in which a participant abuses the meeting in some way. The group may then collectively impose a fine requiring the person to give up some time units (to be redistributed by the time banker) or in compensation to the people specifically abused by the intervention.

Unfinished system: The design and operation of the time allocation system is not to be considered "finished" or rigid. Other variants may be introduced at any time with the consent of the group -- or in advance of the meeting. It may be made more complex, or it may be considerably simplified, as with any economic or trading system.

Non-disruptive mode: By avoiding the use of beads, the time banker can simply record the use of time made by individuals during the course of the meeting -- if the visible use of time beads is considered disruptive. Indeed some people could simply ignore the bead procedure used by others, if they preferred to experience the meeting that way.

This exploration assumes that there are lessons to be learnt for sustainable communities through sharper understanding of the nature of sustainable dialogue in meetings.

Frequency of intervention: A characteristic of meetings is the complaint that a small proportion of participants do most of the talking. One measure of this is the actual quantity of time used, another would be the number of times a person intervenes (or interrupts) -- even for only a few seconds. Participants could be required to pay for each such intervention. The amount could be indexed in terms of the number of times they have already intervened. A second currency, other than time beads, could be used to pay for intervention frequency -- possibly with a means of conversion to the regular time bead currency. Ways could be found to combine frequency and duration of intervention to reward those speaking briefly, but more frequently.

Productivity of interventions: An effort could also be made to score participants more closely on the productivity of an intervention for the development of the meeting process. Issues such as degree of reference to previous interventions could be taken into account, such that those integratingprevious comments would be rewarded. Creative reframing might also be rewarded. Off-the-point monologues might conversely be penalized.

Non-participation: Participants may choose not to participate, or simply be disinclined to participate. In some conditions this may result in the accumulation of time credit relative to others who are more participative. This can be accepted, rewarded or even penalized. This could be done automatically (whether accumulation of interest or as a tax) as an operation against the participant's account in the time bank.

Sale of services: A participant desiring to intervene on a certain topic, especially when lacking the disposable time credit resources to do so, may choose to endeavour to offer the intervention to the group (or another participant). If others are interested they may be prepared to finance the offered intervention to whatever level they consider appropriate.

Purchase of services: Corresponding to any sale or purchases are situations in which a group of participants (or a single participant) wants a particular intervention made -- in exchange for some time credit, and possibly an additional amount to encourage the intervenor.

Acceptance of constraints: A difficulty frequently encountered in a meeting is apparently dysfunctional behaviour on the part of an otherwise valued participant. For participants lacking in resources, one approach might therefore be to offer to modify behaviour during the meeting in exchange for time resources. The participant may specify the behaviour to be constrained in this way, or else the participant may query others as to what behaviour they would like to see constrained. Clearly more time resources would be offered for the more dysfunctional forms of behaviour. Alternatively resources might be sought in exchange for manifesting some form of behaviour uncharacteristic of the person's meeting comportment. In one alternative all participants would seek to build up their time resource capital in this way -- as possibly one of the few ways of generating resources. It is interesting to think of this as collective investment in the constraint of each participant's shadow.

Open-ended sustainability: A meeting is normally designed in relation to a fixed period of time. This is less true of periodic meetings where issues may be carried over or postponed to a subsequent occasion. Time resources may also be apportioned in this way and carried over to future meetings. Those who save their resources in one meeting may then be at an advantage in a future session.

Heightening interest: An interesting question is what keepsa meeting going, even from one occasion to the next in a periodic series. Conversely, what causes interest to flag. Past experiments with T-groups touched upon this. If time resources are allocated in relation to a fixed time, the issue is avoided. If however the time economy is structured in such a way that individuals, and the group as a whole, have to generate resources, then the relation between resources and sustainability becomes more evident. In a fixed time situation, time resources are simply transferred to the time sink as the meeting progresses. In the open-ended situation the sink must be creatively reframed --there is a need for recycling. The group is then faced with the need to shift the focus through phases, whether by shifting to new topics, new venues, or new styles of meeting -- before returning once again to those already explored (presumably exhaustively). In a sustainable mode, such returns cannot be avoided. How topics, as resources in their own right, get exhausted is also necessarily a matter of concern for any sustainable community. If all topics (and/or ways of approaching them) are exhausted, the participants have effectively used up their resources and the viability of the community (or meeting) will naturally become questionable.

Monetarized vs barter economies: Participants might choose to focus on whether the meeting time economy had become excessively "monetarized" -- especially through the use of time beads. Alternatives may be sought based on systems of barter, although presumably several forms of economy may coexist. Note that the obtrusive character of time beads may be avoided by having transactions recorded by observers supplying occasional time credit reports.

Report on one implementation

During the month International Summer University (Potsdam, September 1995) of the Peace University (Akazienstrasse 27, D-10823 Berlin, Germany), a simplified version of the above process was used to manage time during day long Round Tables -- following an earlier experiment on the occasion of the UN Climate Conference. On any day there could be up to 10 simultaneous Round Tables with up to 10 persons per table. The result was described by Hazel Henderson as a "social invention" and by Marilyn Wilhelm as a "civilized dialogue" that should be introduced in schools as well as decision/situation rooms.

The key moderators of the overall process were Heiner Benking and Farah Lenser(see website).

On this occasion the "rules" were:

Speaking time credit was not related to position or public appearance. It was dynamically allocated to the person who was perceived as able to contribute most to the current situation. This might mean people from developing countries, women, children, or unforeseen categories of people. Lengthy speech-making was avoided. At one stage there was a mix of one third celebrities and two thirds "unknown" participants. Some tables were English-speaking, but most were German-speaking.

Observers (over 70 at one point) standing around the tables could be given a time unit by participants to allow them to speak, or could be invited to replace one of the participants. Participants occasionally modified the rules which were quickly grasped, notably by children. Celebrities were not necessarily allocated most time.

Since stones were used as time units, in German the system was named the Steinzeit method. Although one translation is "stone time", the other is Stone Age!

Metaphors for a sustainable time economy in meetings

Meeting as a market: By exploring a meeting as a market, questions are raised about how people discover and produce whatever they bring to sell or exchange at that market. What do people bring to market? How are "objects" on display at meetings perceived to be saleable? Thus items may be culled from the media or from daily experience and then exchanged during the meeting. Issues can be identified and structured into forms whose communication is valued by some. Creative insights can be rendered into a form valuable in such exchanges. Groups of participants may cooperate in crafting a valued communication. Any barter or selling process may be seen in terms of market stands, each with a salespersonactively or passively promoting the wares on display. Other sellers may ply the crowds, unrelated to particular stands, trying to make a sale. Thieves and pickpockets may also be present, taking without any effort at exchange -- and requiring the presence of protectors or police. Charitable benefactors may choose to offer the insights without charge. Some may be rewarded simply for performing in unusual ways. Some may endeavour to harangue a crowd, seeking to persuade or proselytize, without any expectation of reward (and often, whether or not they attract an audience).

Meeting as an environmental niche: By exploring a meeting as an ecosystem, questions are raised about the very different kinds of participant and their many forms of involvement in the meeting process. Some species of participant may tend to congregate in quite specific ways, others may occasionally flit in and out interacting only briefly. Some may gather and exchange information in ways quite incomprehensible to others, who may find what is so exchanged totally un-nourishing. One type of participant may effectively be nourished by another -- leading to patterns of parasitism and predation. There may be strange forms of courtship behaviour prior to fruitful intercourse. The different kinds of participants and exchanges are however bound together in complex food webs which defy any simplistic understanding of order. From such a perspective, how is the ecosystem to be developed and its sustainability ensured?

Meeting as crop cultivation: Participants may be understood as bringing to market a variety of produce grown on their own territory. But the meeting itself may be seen as offering scope for the cultivation of a variety of crops. Seeds (cuttings or even grafts) planted by some at the beginning of the meeting by some may be nourished and cared for until they bear fruit. However the growth of any such crop is subject to risks from shortage (or excess) of water, inappropriate nutrients (or their absence), extremes of temperature, and the consequence of pests and diseases. Some problems may be aggravated by monoculture and excessive application of fertilizer in an effort to obtain maximum short-term yields. Permaculture may suggest many alternative perspectives.

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