Video Conferencing: Why Isn't It More Successful?

Tuesday Oct 6th 2009 by Rob Enderle
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For video conferencing to be successful it needs to embrace social networking and foster higher quality personal interaction.

Ever since Cisco moved to buy buy video conferencing firm Tandberg last week I’ve been thinking about this technology area.

This was one of the first technologies I covered as an analyst back in the 1980s and, back then, I had access to the massive research budgets of IBM and AT&T to look at why it wasn’t working. Most of the reasons have been addressed over the years but video conferencing, which we are increasingly calling Telepresence, still isn’t a success. And it took a Facebook message from ex-IDC Video Conferencing analyst Ed Buckingham to help me refine my thoughts.

We’ll start by reviewing the working assumptions and then go into a broader discussion of why video conferencing is wrong-headed if it wants to get people off planes and into conference rooms.

Working Assumptions

The working assumptions for much of the last three decades (yes this stuff has been around actually longer than this in some form or other) has been that the problems to overcome were ease of use, video quality, and latency.

Generally people using early systems required a substantial amount of training. And often the trained people weren’t around when a call was to be made – resulting in substantial frustration.

When a call was made the picture quality generally wasn’t like being there. It was more like analog TV on a bad channel, and there was so much network latency that voices and lips often weren’t in sync. People had a tendency to talk over each other much like they did in the early days of long distance.

The primary justification for the system wasn’t better meetings but reduced travel expenses. This is somewhat unique as most other technology purchases have a direct benefit tied to their primary purpose (in this case it would be making meetings better). But video conferencing systems’ primary benefit isn’t better meetings but reducing travel cost and saving time.

It’s interesting to note that travel time likely drives the use of these systems more consistently than travel cost because, with the former, if you need to do a high quality meeting immediately travel isn’t a real option anyway.

New Assumptions

Why do people go to meetings? Think about it: We have conference room speaker phones, many of which are just fine. And products like WebEx and Live Meeting make collaboration over distances productive.

So why get on a plane?

The reason isn’t to see people across a table but to connect with them and to better understand the dynamics of the people and remote location. Meetings are held in person for the social aspects. Often it isn’t the meeting itself but getting to know the related people, getting them to understand better who you are and where you’re coming from. Not to mention learning the local gossip, which makes going to a location very critical.

If all you need is to see foils or pictures, WebEx or Live meeting are more than acceptable to most. And my industry did meetings over the phone with hard copy foils for years.

This opens up another reason to be at the location: You can see when people are getting bored or may have questions that often don’t make it over the phone – but you don’t need high quality video for that, low quality video is just fine.

In short, for video conferencing to work you need a social framework to wrap around it so that people no longer feel the need to go to a location to connect with the people at that location. For instance if you chat with people regularly over the phone do you feel the need to physically see them more or less than if you didn’t?

I know when I worked in a big office I dreaded big meetings. But when I was remote I felt left out as the only one calling in because there were clearly inside jokes and side comments I couldn’t hear (and worried they might be about me).

Polycom CX5000 Example

I’ve recently been in a number of meetings (mostly at NVIDIA) where the Polycom CX5000 is in use.

NVIDIA is a graphics company and you would think they’d use a High Definition system like Cisco, Tandberg or HP but they don’t, they use this little Polycom. It works vastly differently in that it sits in the middle of a table and works with Live Meeting to create a blended presentation video conference without changing the layout of the room. You sit around a table naturally and the device points a camera in the direction of the speaker.

As a remote viewer you see the person talking and as a person in the room you feel like you are in a regular meeting rather than on stage in front of a camera (which does change the meeting dynamic and makes it more social). Granted it doesn’t work as well when two remote working groups are trying to converse but it does if individuals are calling in remotely (which I think actually happens far more often).

This brought me to the conclusion that for video conferencing to really catch on it needs to bring something to the table so that people want to use the device – rather than are forced to use it to save travel dollars.

Wrapping Up: The TCO Fallacy

Years ago a fellow analyst at Giga Information Group (who is now at Forrester) named Chip Gliedman said TCO – “total cost of ownership” – was full of crap (or words to the effect) because it focused people too much on cost and not enough of the benefits associated with a particular task.

He created the more complex and less popular, but arguably much more meaningful, Total Economic Impact metric metric. In video conferencing Total Economic Impact would factor in the cost of not traveling; not just the direct cost of a plane ticket.

In person meetings do a better job of forging relationships than any current video conferencing call. That is the hidden cost of the system and it may exceed by several magnitudes the money saved in some instances.

That means that for the majority of meetings, they aren’t adequate. But where two working groups need to be in constant sync they are better than a conference phone.

The less expensive CX5000 system is better for meetings where people are calling in remotely, suggesting different tools for different types of meetings. However, until these systems can truly allow you to socially connect with the people at the remote sites they won’t obsolete business travel in and of themselves.

However, I’ll bet if the H1N1 Virus becomes an epidemic as is currently the expectation, they will get heavy use. In this last instance this is not because they are a better networking solution but because the benefit of staying alive will exceed the benefit of the plane trip.

In the end, however, I think for Telepresence to be successful it needs to embrace social networking and eventually create virtual rooms where people can chat with each other like they would have had they traveled. Only then will Video Conferencing really become Telepresence and make business travel obsolete.

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