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6 minute read

Can Next-Generation Video Conferencing Change The Way We Communicate?

If you are like most business people, you probably spend a lot of hours in conference calls. Personally, I spend between 6-10 hours every week on these calls. That’s approximately 400 hours a year. Four hundred hours, 50 work days a year…that’s two and a half work months. That is an absolutely staggering amount of time.

And how effective are these two and a half months of conference phone time?

Here is the typical dynamic of those calls. The meeting organizer spends a lot of the time talking, and the people in the meeting room with the organizer are highly engaged. The folks dialing in are much less attentive and often, they don’t participate at all. Does the following exchange sound familiar?

Meeting organizer talks for 10 minutes about some new idea and then reaches out for feedback.

[Organizer]: "Hey Bob, what do you think?"



Long pause.

[Bob]: "What, what was that? Sorry, I was on mute. Did you ask me something?"

The reality is that for the most part, remote participants are just hanging on the line. Most of them figure they can use conference call time to get ‘real work’ done, chat, read the newspaper, answer mail…even watch YouTube videos. And the more people that participate on the call, the more anonymous each one becomes…and the more they can afford to be a non-participant.

A large part of this non-engagement is due to the lack of visual contact. If you can’t really see what people are doing (and they can’t see you), a critical element of the meeting dynamic is missing.

A recent study performed by Sasa Junuzovic and associates at Microsoft Research in conjunction with the University of Washington compared the efficacy of audio conferences, video conferences, and avatar-based conferencing. Results showed that being able to see other participants had a significant impact on social presence, being able to assess non-verbal cues and conversational mechanics, and on ‘realism.’ In fact, the study concluded that "video was rated as significantly more useful for distributed meetings than audio…" Study subjects summed up their experiences with statements like the following:

"I liked the video the best because you can see how people react; get to know their personalities – it is like being in the same room as people."

"Video was the most personal."

"I could see people’s expressions"

These findings are not surprising; in fact the conclusions are glaringly obvious. So why don’t we use videoconferencing?

Videoconferencing to the rescue?

It used to be that videoconferencing involved specially-equipped rooms with expensive equipment and high-speed data networking links. And only trained specialists could operate the equipment. So video conferencing was a hassle, reserved only for really important meetings or for interactions where seeing the other person was critical, like remote job interviews. But this is changing.

Video conference tools have recently gotten much better and a lot less expensive. It is no longer necessary to have dedicated videoconferencing rooms. At the most basic level, the only hardware now required is a webcam, which is already built into laptops and tablet computers. The software? It’s much cheaper and simpler to use, and it can be downloaded in seconds from the Internet.

In the past few weeks, I interviewed several leading suppliers of videoconferencing solutions and got their input to how video conferencing is impacting the way business gets done.

Kevin Kennedy, President and CEO of Avaya agrees that the allure of video conferencing is primarily due to its ability to display visual cues and body language. As an example, Kennedy tells the story of a video conference participant seeing a colleague making a gesture and responding "oh, now I can see what you really think." Kennedy also points out that video conferencing is only one part of the picture. Video conferencing is now often bundled with collaboration capabilities. For example, with Avaya’s solution, remote colleagues can now share documents, page through presentations, and chat with individuals on the call. These additional elements of collaboration are making video conferencing increasingly attractive. Economics are also driving the growth of video conferencing. Kennedy says that for $8 per month and using a 256k data line, users now have access to high-definition video collaboration. And these trends are impacting the business. Kennedy points out that for every phone that Avaya sells, two software clients are activated on windows or tablet; clients that support video and other collaboration modalities.

Another leading company in the video collaboration business is Citrix. I recently spoke with Bernardo de Albergaria, VP and GM of collaboration at Citrix, and Kasper Hulthin, co-founder of Podio (now part of Citrix). They concur with Kennedy that additional collaboration capabilities are making video conferencing more compelling. They believe that remote collaboration products need to offer more than just ‘another application’ used in conjunction with email, microblogging, CRM, video and other enterprise tools. They believe that people need to have one collaboration application; an application that will cover all the collaboration modalities, including video conferencing. They also point out that economics plays a large part in the adoption of these technologies. For $9 month per employee, they say companies can be collaborating, including unlimited usage and storage.

Getting Started

So I ask again, if video conferencing and online collaboration is so compelling…and now cheap, why aren’t we all using it today?

I believe that the answer is that it’s not all about value and economics. The truth is that people (and organizations) don’t like changing the way they work. And seeing people may not be that compelling for everyone Think about the person who joins the weekly sales call at 7 a.m. in their pajamas, before their first cup of coffee. They may not find the transition to videoconferencing all that welcome. And people who join calls when in transit may feel at a disadvantage if they are not able ‘to see and be seen.’ Personally, I still find it a bit uncomfortable to do video calls when my call partner is watching me take notes.

But as the technology and economic barriers continue to come down, the utility of being able to see and interact with remote colleagues will become harder to ignore. Coupled with the huge cost savings that videoconferencing provides in reducing travel costs and organizations’ carbon footprints, videoconferencing in definitely in your future. Kennedy perhaps sums it up best. "Collaboration is defined by the nuances of the community. Those that can morph to the [new] culture will be successful."

Why do you think videoconferencing has not taken off? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.

—Author David Lavenda is a product strategy executive. He also does academic research on information overload in organizations and he is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He tweets from @dlavenda.

[Image: Flickr user Jeremy Keith]