Every once in a while I stop and think about some of the first videoconferences I coordinated - and I’m amazed at how far we’ve come.
In the late 1970s, a videoconference was a full television show transmitted on a private network. I had the great opportunity to be an intern at AT&T when it was still the mother-ship of the Bell System (at 195 Broadway in New York.) I learned that when you owned the TV transmission lines it was relatively inexpensive to use them. AT&T offices had weekly “Topic” TV shows with one way video and two way audio (meaning receive sites could see and hear us, and ask questions, but we couldn’t see them).
In the early 1990’s, a videoconference meant arranging satellite time so that the head of the firm where I worked (a pre-mayor Michael Bloomberg) would be able to give presentations remotely. Again, it came from a TV studio, and had that one way video and two way audio (usually a phone line back for questions.) Toward the end of my days working for Mr. Bloomberg, we did once get in a car together to drive to a new-fangled video system called a “PictureTel Concorde” at PictureTel’s offices. This would be one of the first, commercially viable videoconference systems that used the public-switched network (ISDN.) I remember getting PictureTel’s address wrong at first which is probably the reason Mike stopped inviting me to his summer picnics (that and I left his firm to work someplace else.)
Conference room based videoconferencing didn’t hit its stride until the 2000s. I was the guy in charge of designing and operating these massive rooms for financial institutions “too big to fail.” These videoconference rooms were a sight to behold – up to three screens at the front of the room mounted into ornate teak and brass settings; recessed stereo speakers in the ceiling, brass microphones neatly running down the center of the antique boardroom table and a small but powerful touch panel that could connect you to the far-reaches of the world as easily as it could shine your shoes and peel an apple.
A Sample “Simple” Room Control Touch Panel
As in most cases back in those days, only I – and a handful of other techs at the company—knew how to operate those rooms with any confidence.
The unfortunate reality about those rooms was that they didn’t get much use. Between being so intimidating and overcomplicated that one needed an engineer to operate them, and being so darned expensive that they were perceived (in some cases correctly) to be only for the senior leaders, a lot of users just stayed away from them.
Immersive Telepresence came along after that - disguised as the panacea for all videoconference utilization and reliability issues - only to be unmasked about six years later as a terrific, but expensive, solution that is really the right choice only in very specific applications (such as long-form meetings between two fixed offices.)
All of that history leads us to today. I am amazed at how many organizations still perceive visual collaboration in just one of those dated stereotypes above. It’s far from that. Videoconferencing is an important, integral part of a complete Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC&C) strategy. It comes in many forms—those immersive and costly rooms described above (in the few cases where they remain appropriate), other much-less expensive and user-friendly options, and terrific solutions for the remote or mobile participant. When designed and implemented in a well thought-out manner, a comprehensive UC&C strategy can bring transformative change to any organization. The technology enables employees to be productive from wherever they are—at an office, at a home office or while traveling—anywhere.
The key points to keep in mind when considering UC&C are:
One-size-fits-all solutions are NEVER the right thing for any organization. The only correct way to design and implement a collaboration strategy is to speak with the users first, develop a user segmentation plan and then—and only then—go shopping for the correct blend of solutions to meet the needs of the users. Each organization will probably require a different blend of solutions.
Building expensive facilities that can do anything and everything imaginable - but can only be run by an engineer - are not considered best practices anymore. Organizations should build ten simple rooms for the cost of one complex room. (Teak and brass can be omitted at your discretion.) A sleek, free-standing video system pulled-in close to the conference table only when needed is nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s the video equivalent of the audio speakerphone.
Software based systems (on your PC or tablet) are not better than hardware based systems. Hardware based systems are not better either. (Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in unnecessary arguments.) Any correctly designed solution might have many modalities that must all work together.
Speak with your users…regularly. Get their input. Create a focus group. Listen. The only way to achieve maximum utilization of collaboration tools (and therefore maximum ROI) is through detailed user adoption plans. If you just build it (without any input from users) they won’t come.
After decades of transformation, videoconferencing isn’t a TV show, a satellite feed, a Picture-Tel Concorde, or an expensive room anymore – it has now become a part of a larger strategy for organizations to design based on their specific, unique short-term and long-term goals – What I call “the right blend.” It also isn’t just for executives of financial institutions anymore - it is the standard of how we connect with our colleagues, assist our clients, stay in touch with our families and successfully transform the way organizations do business. These days, videoconferencing can take place from airports, hotels, offices - virtually anywhere—and it has led to profound changes in the way businesses connect and serve clients across the globe. I have had the privilege to witness the evolution of this technology and its use in transforming business over several decades. If you’d like more details about some of the profound changes I’ve seen, please drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions. David has over three decades of experience providing problem solving leadership and innovation in media and unified communications technologies for various firms in the corporate, broadcasting and academic worlds including AT&T, Bloomberg LP, FNN, Morgan Stanley, NYU, Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan Chase. He now works with Dimension Data as their Principal Consultant for the collaboration, multimedia, video and AV disciplines. David can be reached at David.Danto@Dimensiondata.com and his full bio and other blogs and articles can be seen at Danto.info. Please reach-out to David if you would like to discuss how he can help your organization solve problems or develop a future-proof collaboration strategy.
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