A few months ago I found myself at a global press event organised by a major software vendor where great efforts had been taken to follow all the best practices you would expect from a modern, environmentally-conscious multinational corporation.
The press releases and speaker biogs were printed on both sides of the paper, with little recycling logos in the corner; the keynote presentation was delivered via a video link from New York; and the media question and answer session was undertaken with UK-based execs in the room and global execs answering questions from four continents using a conference call facility.
Flights had been avoided, paper had been saved, most people had arrived by public transport, the whole event was the embodiment of a successful green meeting – or it would have been had any of it worked.
The keynote was a moderate-sized disaster with the video link capturing a jerky likeness of the company's president as he delivered his speech, but singularly failing to provide a readable impression of the PowerPoint slides he kept referring to.
The Q&A proved even more luckless with UK journalists plunged into a telephonic black hole by the conferencing system for several minutes, before finally entering the press conference in New York only to find either the microphones or speakers were not sophisticated enough to make the speakers' responses audible. Things improved slightly when a new phone was wheeled in, but by then the Q&A was being wrapped up.
It was a timely reminder that while everyone is now aware of how beneficial online and phone conferencing systems can be in reducing corporate travel and thus carbon emissions, they will only prove effective if they deliver truly seamless and effective communication. As a result many investments in online conferencing systems are failing to deliver the expected benefits, resulting in some executives shunning the unreliable systems in favour of traveling to financially and environmentally damaging face-to-face meetings.
It is a problem reluctantly acknowledged by many of the web conferencing providers who over the past decade have often seen their systems deployed by customers only to be ignored by the executives who should have been using them.
"The legacy of the first wave of video conferencing is that many firms invested in expensive end point video equipment and due to various reasons the investment failed to deliver the expected returns," admits Steve Frost, marketing manager at the Unified Communications division of networking giant Cisco.
The absence of ubiquitous broadband coupled with the dominance of low definition cameras and complicated user interfaces often made online conferencing a trying experience. "The systems used to be far too complex," adds Frost. "People used to step into a room and be given a remote control and told "set it up then" – it was never going to work."
However, according to Frost and other advocates of online conferencing, these technological problems have been resolved and the shambolic and ineffective virtual meetings and presentations such as the one I experienced are increasingly a thing of the past. "The problem now [for the vendors of video conferencing systems] is that a lot of firms don't believe video conferencing can deliver what we say it can," comments Paul Gullet (pictured), president for Europe, Middle East and Africa at video conferencing specialist Tandberg. "The challenge is to get the technology in front of people and prove it now works and is easy to use."
In fact, those firms that are deploying the new breed of high definition video and interactive online communication tools are finding that the key to successful deployment lies less in the technology and more in the ability to embrace the right management practices. "The challenge is not the technology," argues Ewan Cameron UK sales manager at web conferencing specialist WebEx. "The broadband connection is less of an issue, the cost and quality of the cameras are also getting better all the time, and you really only need an internet connection to have a successful web conference. The challenge now is about changing employee habits."
Experts agree that the first habit employees using online conferencing need to change is their one-size-fits-all approach to online meetings – and in some cases that can mean limiting use of video conferencing.
"A lot of people focus on video conferencing but video is just part of the solution," says Frost. "Successful [online] meetings are also about other forms of collaboration and ensuring you get the right mix. You are not always going to need high-definition video, it is about having the options offered by a unified communications suite and learning to select the right medium."
Ian Gabbie, European marketing manager at online conferencing specialist Genesys, claims growing numbers of firms are finally realising they need access to a selection of different communication tools to ensure successful online meetings. "The growth in integrated audio, web and video conferencing is outstripping growth in pure video suites," he said. "These integrated suites mean you can now push slides out to people, share documents, and work on them together. You can basically do everything you can do in a face-to-face meeting bar actually touching the other person."
It is easy to envisage how better selection of technology would have improved the unsuccessful keynote I watched. Simply making the video link part of a dashboard that allowed the presentation slides to be seen directly on the screen alongside the speaker would have easily solved the problem posed by the low definition video. Similarly, the level of collaboration required during the press conference would have been better achieved through an audio web conference that allowed journalists to send over questions through instant messages than it was through an antiquated telephone conferencing system.
But how do firms ensure they pick the right tools for the right meeting? A recent report from occupational psychologists Pearn Kandola, commissioned by Cisco, set out to answer this question and offers best practice guidelines on how to select the appropriate technologies for different types of online meetings. In particular, it advises that groups use richer media, such as video, in the initial stages of a project to aid relationship building, before switching to less intrusive communication tools, such as IM or audio web conferences, once the work really gets under way. Furthermore, it recommends that project teams working online should agree clear protocols such as agreed response times and notifying other attendees of unavailability to avoid confusion and foster trust.
Basic principles for a good meeting should also be retained for online conferences, according to Professor Peter James of the UK Centre for Environmental and Economic Development. "As with any meeting it is really important you have a chair person," he advises. "It is not as bad as with pure phone conferences, but with video and online conferences you can still have some people uninvolved and it is important there is someone in a position to manage the meeting."
Once the right communication tools and guidelines are in place the next step required is to get executives actually using the new technology. Even the most ardent supporters of web conferences agree that there are many circumstances where face-to-face meetings will still be required. But there is also a growing consensus that large numbers of meetings can be successfully shifted online once executives are convinced that the new technology works.
Demonstrating the tools to staff and ensuring the user interface is easy to use are both critical to ensuring staff use the technology, according to Dominic Hook, director of ICT at trade union Amicus, which has deployed video conferencing systems at around 40 of its offices. "It is a visual technology so you need to show people how it works and then give them time to get used to it," he advises. "At first we found people wanted to do their hair before getting in front of a camera, but if you give people time it is surprising how quickly they become comfortable with the technology."
Cameron agrees that people are most resistant to using web conferences when they don't understand how they work and as a result training and internal marketing is important for driving adoption. "You need champions within the business - people who say "stop and think", "what are you doing" and "how could you use these tools"," he adds.
Cameron recommends that this internal marketing is most effective when formalised and undertaken with backing from senior executives. "A lot of our customer engagements are bottom up where someone in a department realises how much time and energy they waste traveling to meetings and looks into how WebEx could help," he admits. "That's great, but if you really want to drive the commercial and environmental gains across the business you need a senior exec pushing it. We see the highest use of web conferencing where clients have been really proactive and deployed measures such as changing their corporate intranet travel booking page so that people have to fill in why the meeting can not be done using WebEx."
The well-publicised environmental, cost and productivity gains that web conferencing delivers should also form a key plank of any internal marketing strategy, according to Gabbie. He argues that increasingly environmentally-aware employees are far more likely to eschew journeys in favour of online meetings if they have a sense of how much they are saving in carbon emissions. "It should be best practice for firms' HR departments to share this environmental information so that staff can see the positive contribution they are making," advises Gabbie.
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