Of all the technologies impacting on business organisations in 2002, one in particular has the ability to create major paradigm shift in the business process, and it is happening big-time as globalisation takes off. Videoconferencing (VC) technology is maturing to such an extent that it can no longer be ignored as communication medium. The benefits are simply too great.
It’s interesting that e.Office (or NZ Office Products News as it was known then) did not devote any feature pages to videoconferencing until as recently as July 1999, which indicates just how fast moving the product sector is.
The advances since 1999 have been enormous, especially in terms of what you get for your investment, the prices quoted in that first article in no way reflect the prices of today. Not only were early systems considered expensive and of dubious value, they were also difficult to operate and often unreliable, far cry from today’s simple dial-up ‘plug-and-play’ systems.
So let’s remind ourselves of the obvious and not-so-obvious benefits of VC implementation. Top of the list is undoubtedly the rather significant savings to be made in travel and accommodation, by keeping staff back at home base. Savings can be as high as 50 percent.
Boyd Reynolds is one company that will conduct free financial analysis for company to clearly demonstrate the true cost of meetings, both national or international. Many companies are surprised to learn that the money they are already spending on air travel and down-time would easily cover the cost of videoconferencing system. And then there are the less tangible but just as important benefits such as decreased stress and greater availability of key staff who would otherwise be out of contact. Knowledge is shared more effectively and decisions made much faster and with greater consensus. Team building across an enterprise is also encouraged.
Of course customers and clients also benefit from being able to communicate via video, after all, video image can paint thousand words, and save an awful lot of to-and-fro inefficiency, not to mention misunderstanding. It’s also all about increased responsiveness.
Some spin-off benefits can be less than obvious. Avcom Technologies’ Rob Love gives the example of staff being allowed to use the VC facility to conference with family and friends overseas on special occasions. “This is rather obvious advantage in terms of staff retention and morale.”
Tony Parton, sales and marketing manager for Sony New Zealand’s Business Communications Group lists key “soft benefit” as improved employee morale. “Even the most dedicated employees have lives outside the company. By using videoconferencing an organisation is able to reduce its demands on employees, with consequent improvements in morale.” There’s also the ability for faster crisis management he says. “Executives can meet at short notice anywhere in the world.”
It is interesting that some early adopters of VC technology have become avid users, while others have virtually given up on it or use the excuse that they no longer require it.
However, according to Chris Stewart of asnet Technologies, those companies which embrace the technology on day-to-day basis have experienced major spin offs in their business process. “VC is all about communication, both personal and enterprise-wide. It is about forming relationships inside your company and outside with suppliers and customers,” he says.
Stewart believes videoconferencing is where email was some three or four years ago – companies know the benefits, but they just haven’t put it on the “must-buy” list yet.
“By far the biggest spin-off of videoconferencing is the face-to-face communication the technology allows, in natural environment,” says Stewart. “This was simply not possible few years ago with the low data rates and inferior systems that existed then.”
While the latest generation VC systems are far cry from the clumsier systems of the ’90s, it’s still advisable to work closely with an experienced vendor, according to Grant Shaw, manager videoconferencing for Cogent Communications. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ product on the market and there is reason why products are priced the way they are. Be wary of cheap offerings on the market, you may save money up front, but it will end up costing you more in the future.”
Rob Love believes that ideally the system should provide an easy upgrade/expansion path that allows for future growth within the organisation. “The idea that set-top systems can meet all requirements is somewhat wide of the mark.”
Often in large corporate environment involving several branches, mix of VC models is necessary to deploy the technology successfully throughout the organisation. single software platform across the entire range of models makes it much easier (and more cost effective) to upgrade system features across the board.
“Interoperability is another crucial factor,” says Sony’s Parton. “Does the system work with other brands and is there the ability for desktop systems to conference with set-top and group systems from other manufacturers? To ensure that your total investment over the years pays decent return, all your VC systems must be capable of integration.”
Audio quality is another major consideration, as it is frequent problem reported in systems that have not been correctly sized. Poor acoustics and microphone placement can also be contributing factors.
When choosing supplier, choose one that promotes high level of in-house training. If you’re in any doubt about the performance of the system they’re marketing, don’t be afraid to ask for demonstration, in your own office if you prefer, and side-by-side with competitive product. It’s also wise to talk to successful users of the technology, and learn by their mistakes.
Suppliers should be able to provide high degree of service, such as help-desk, online diagnostics, and an efficient on-site repair service.
As to the size and nature of the VC system, and determining which will be appropriate, the answer really boils down to common sense. If it’s purely one-to-one personal VC system you require today and in the future, then desktop system is perfectly adequate and network connectivity is not an issue. An IP or ISDN gateway will allow you to connect with anyone, anywhere in the world.
Roll-out or roll-about systems are ideal for typical meeting room scenarios, which is by far the largest market segment, and for situations involving large audience, there are fixed conference room systems that can require six-figure investment.
Should you want to set up VC session involving more people, you can take advantage of the many VC bureaux services available, or put yourself in the hands of service providers such as AT Managed Services, which offer national and international bureaux room services, event management, web scheduling and multi-point bridging (where you want to link-up number of different sites).
Chris Stewart’s company has been at the forefront of move in the marketplace which has seen the establishment of CSPs (Conferencing Service Providers). “asnet Technologies has flown that flag since the end of last year when we opened our MeetNow service, whereby users can book conferences online. The conference can be either IP or ISDN, or mix of both,” he says.
Stewart also poses the following questions: “Do you want to use ISDN to access your company’s legacy computer system or your customer’s? If so, then you’ll need system that has both ISDN and IP connectivity. Then the question is how many ISDN lines, which then determines the VC system model, and prices range from $10k to $40k.”
If collaboration is top priority then look at the interfacing options for such things as VCR, PC, data/video projector, electronic whiteboard, or any other peripheral.
Finally, if meetings involve number of remote users at different sites, then multi-site or multi-point capability requires careful c