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Walkthrough Wednesdays

Conference Escalation

Cisco Employee

Conference calls and webshares – made possible by products like Webex and Meetingplace – have become the bread and butter tool for modern collaboration. Today’s knowledge workers are often part of teams that are geographically dispersed, often spread over many time zones. They frequently work from home, or take a call while on the road. Work that used to happen in a conference room in an office building is now taking place through the virtual equivalent – a Webex session. I personally spend a lot of my time every day on conference calls, and I’m not alone.

This heavy usage of services like Webex makes them a ripe target for productivity gains. An enhancement that saves just one minute on each conference call has an exponential savings benefit. That one minute in savings gets multiplied by the number of users in the call, and multiplied again by the frequency such calls are made during a day.

Conference calls and webshares are also particularly interesting because they are the most often-used tool for inter-company collaboration. Time spent with colleagues in other enterprises is usually even more valuable than time spent with folks in the same enterprise, further multiplying the productivity gains from conferencing enhancements.

Here are just a few examples of some of the ways in which we can shave precious minutes off of these calls:

  1. Instant Webex: I often call someone on the phone to discuss something, and halfway through the conversation, we realize that we need to share a document. What follows is a complicated process of agreeing on who will set up a sharing session, navigating the right set of menu options to set up the session, finding the email address or IM contact information of the other person, sending them the URL to join the share, waiting for both of us to join      the share, and then finishing by figuring out whether we move the audio to the conference bridge, or stay as it is. This is a serious drain on productivity – easily 3 to 5 minutes of wasted time. What I really want is a button on my phone called “launch Webex”, and when I press it, this button launches a Webex session with the other person on the call. That person needs to do nothing at all – their PC automatically joins the Webex session, as does mine. This feature is particularly useful for calls with colleagues in other businesses, where there it is typically even more complicated to get a share set up.
  2. Music-On-Hold: We’ve all had this experience before. You are on a large conference call, and someone inevitably gets another incoming call, answers it, and puts the conference call on hold. Now, the entire conference is treated to music-on-hold. This completely stops the discussion. The host scrambles to figure out who the offender is, and then struggles to find the mute button to mute them. Once muted, there is no way for the host to know when the person takes the conference call off of hold. That person eventually figures it out, and is forced to drop and dial back in. They miss part of the conference, and everyone gets distracted by the beeps that are played on the leave and join. If we can fix it so that phone systems never play music-on-hold into a conference call, several minutes could be saved.
  3. Wideband  Audio: I am a big believer in wideband (aka High Definition) speech codecs. High definition speech dramatically improves understanding and can save time by eliminating the need to ask people to repeat themselves. Unfortunately, most conferences don’t utilize wideband speech, as they are limited by the capabilities of the public switched telephone network.

Interestingly, all three of these productivity gains can only be obtained by utilizing IP-based connectivity between the users, their phones, and the conferencing system. Most conference calls today do not utilize IP – at least not for the voice part. Many conferencing solutions, like Webex, are hosted. Enterprises connect to them using the public telephone network. Even when conferences are hosted on-premise, using Meetingplace for example, many conference calls still involve the PSTN because participants are outside of the company, either in different businesses or dialing in from their mobile phone.

The solution, of course, is to move away from the PSTN as the lingua-franca of inter-company communications, and move towards IP. Such a move will benefit not just conferencing, but all aspects of collaboration. Voicemail, contact center, video and wideband audio, and even basic telephony features – can all take big leaps forward when IP is the one and only glue that ties everyone together.

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