Oct 24 2012

Conferencing Connects, Collaboration Creates

Fueled by an explosion in apps and the extension of technology to mobile devices, conferencing is taking hold across organizations and functions.

Need proof that conferencing systems — audio, web, video — have broadly penetrated the business, government and education markets? Look to one of the most novel applications available: JailCast, a “virtual jail” community serving a niche industry.

The three primary forms of conferencing currently constitute a market revenue of roughly $3.5 billion. And that figure is expected to reach $20 billion by 2020, says J.D. Vaughn, founder and principal of J D Vaughn Consulting and a long-time expert in the conferencing industry.

Vaughn and other experts note that a number of factors, in addition to apps for a wide range of vertical industries, are coming together to make this growth happen. For example:

  • Globalization and decentralization of workers make many face-to-face meetings expensive and impractical.
  • Improvements and price reductions in video technology are making it a core piece of conferencing systems — even those that weren’t built from the ground up for video.
  • Mobile devices are now able to access conferencing systems for full participation in conferences.

“The technology is democratized, and now everybody has access to conferencing. Boundaries are gone, costs are reduced, network requirements are reduced,” Vaughn says. “All of what used to be considered roadblocks are now gone.”

Conferencing 101

There’s no question, diverse use of the technology, along with an explosion in applications, is spurring aggressive growth in the conferencing field.

Featuring portals for training, video conferencing and inmate healthcare, JailCast is an example of how conferencing technology is being employed to facilitate collaboration, decision making, and outreach to an organization’s constituencies. These could be customers, citizens, students, supply-chain partners or even inmates.

The three principal types of conferencing are audio, web and video. With audio, think of the traditional “con call,” with a dial-in number and voice communication for a large number of participants.

Web conferencing uses a shared URL for presentations, screen sharing and other collaborative apps. The web conference may or may not include audio operating directly through a computer, without need for a telephone. Many web conferencing apps now include support for video as well.

Historically, video conferencing has been a pricey technology, requiring systems and facilities dedicated to face-to-face communications and high bandwidth. It’s now becoming more broadly accessible, thanks to lower-priced options and the addition of video features to unified communications and web conferencing systems. Video conferencing can be as simple as activating a notebook webcam to participate in a video session.

For organizations, one important benefit of video is that it can reduce or eliminate the chances of participants “checking out,” says Richard McLeod, senior director of collaboration architecture sales for worldwide channels at Cisco.

“If people have video, you kind of call them out,” he says. “You want to look at them eyeball to eyeball and know they’re not checking e-mail or doing IM [instant messaging].” McLeod notes that video is a component of most company meetings.

Productivity Comes First

Tying together the various forms of conferencing — and the applications that leverage them — is a common theme: hold productive meetings even when participants can’t be in the same room. The good news: The ability to conference puts control into the host’s hands, ensuring more productive meetings.

“Companies are reducing real estate and moving to pooled, shared office cubicles, so people aren’t in face-to-face situations nearly as often as in the past,” says McLeod, who notes that none of the people reporting to him are located in the same city. “The only way I have a team meeting is to fly people in from around the world, or through collaboration technologies.”

Another technology trend that lessens the need for face-to-face interactions is social media, notes Simon Dudley, video evangelist at video manufacturer LifeSize Communications. “The idea you will take more flights and do more in traditional ways is breaking down — it’s not possible,” Dudley says. “Social media lets you interact with people all over the planet, so suddenly your peer group isn’t people who live around the corner from you.”

Experts say a collaborative session featuring voice and video as well as app sharing over the web helps speed the time to reach a decision. This is especially true when compared with an asynchronous e-mail thread, where so much urgency and nuance can get lost in text, interpretation and time-zone differences.

McLeod cites the example of a professor interacting with a student, trying to resolve a technical issue. With robust conferencing, an engineer could be added to the discussion, via video, to reach a solution in real time — an outcome not possible when talking on a cell phone.

“It’s hard to describe a blue wire, a green wire, tab A, slot B,” McLeod says. “But when you have an expert who has repaired something many times, if they can see it, they can solve it immediately.”

Adds Craig Lynar, marketing director of UC applications for Avaya: “With web conferencing, you can share slides, manipulate data through whiteboarding and real-time collaboration, as opposed to sending e-mails.” The ability to close loops in real time better addresses the needs of most organizations.

It’s the Applications

With the productivity enhancements of conferencing technology broadly available, the next important consideration is the proprietary applications available. These are often developed and optimized by organizations or suppliers within that industry, as opposed to the technology vendors themselves.

One of the most frequently cited applications for video conferencing has been telemedicine. In this context, it refers to use of video to support collaboration and consultation between medical providers, or consultation between a patient and a specialist in a remote location.

In the banking field, conferencing enables large institutions with broad geographical reach to deliver expertise to remote outposts, without investing in that expertise for every location. If a customer needs help with a trust, and their local bank branch is in a lightly populated area, they could go into their local branch and consult with a trust consultant “serving 20 branches and available immediately by video,” says McLeod.

“You can go into a private office, push a button and connect with an expert,” he adds. “That’s good for customer service and good for the bank’s cost structure.”

Schools have taken advantage of video conferencing by remotely offering an extra class that might not be available otherwise. Religious institutions have seen the advantages of video conferencing, enabling shut-in members of a congregation to “attend” worship without leaving home.

And the legal system is using the technology for video arraignment, telecourt and telejustice. The practice eliminates the need for prisoners to be transported to court or for judges or minute clerks to travel to the jail.


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