If you've ever been a part of a decentralized working group, you're undoubtedly aware of the utility of shared conference calls; I've spent many an hour on conference calls for a variety of projects. But one of the major problems with conference calls is that someone always has to take notes, which is tricky to do while participating in the discussion. The notes are also only as good as the notetaker was attentive, and in my experience, there's a wide range of notetaking skills (and desire) among my peers.
I'm looking forward to trying a new service that promises to solve this problem entirely, though. Called SEETS, for SubEthaEdit Transcription Service, the idea is simple. You use a particular telephone conferencing service and as part of the cost, a trained notetaker listens in on your call and takes notes on the discussion. But, as you probably guessed from the name, the cool part is that the notetaker takes the notes in a shared SubEthaEdit document that anyone on the call can join. (For those that haven't seen it, SubEthaEdit, formerly known as Hydra, is a free, real-time, collaborative text editor from a group of German computer science students calling themselves TheCodingMonkeys.)
I've found that watching someone take notes on a discussion in SubEthaEdit helps focus the discussion, since there's a visible record of what's been said (preventing unnecessary backtracking and allowing latecomers to catch up quickly) and what's coming up (if an agenda has been set in advance). And even if one person is taking most of the notes, it's easy to make small changes to account for important points that person might have missed or may not realized were significant.
SEETS notetakers are trained not just to transcribe a discussion, but to reflect the structure of the call, appropriately labeling each point with the name of the person who made it. And although most people probably won't want to add to the notes all that much, an occasional addition or terminology correction will help the notetaker improve the accuracy of the notes.
Although it would seem that the SEETS notetaking service would add significantly to the cost of the conference call, it's in line with the national average at 25 cents per minute per person (though admittedly higher than the cut-rate conferencing services, which are down around 8 cents per minute). Two factors make this price possible: the reliance on inexpensive Voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology for the actual call, and the use of highly skilled but relatively low-paid workers in India for the actual notetaking service. And of course, even if 25 cents per minute sounds expensive, if SEETS lets everyone on a business call stay focused and not spend time afterwards fleshing out the notes, it's easily worth the cost.
In fact, that's a final benefit of SEETS - everyone can save their own copy of the notes at the end of the call. No more waiting for someone else to finish them up and send them out in email to find out what your action items are.
I won't pretend that SEETS is ideal for every conference call. For one, SEETS supports only English at the moment, though the company may offer additional languages in the future. There are also undoubtedly topics that are simply too sensitive to allow an outsider to listen in. But for those routine conference calls that consume an hour of your life, using SEETS can at least let you focus on the topic at hand and not worry that the discussions will be forgotten as soon as everyone hangs up.