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Doing more with video conferencing

By Rob Bamforth

While video conferencing is not a new technology, several factors appear to be driving forward the adoption of video as a communications tool, especially for personal use. Whether Skyping with distant relatives, using video in gameplay or creating recordings to share on YouTube, video has become much more broadly accepted and valued. So, just as in other areas of technology is this consumer appetite for video translating into more widespread business usage? Not really, which begs the question why?

First, any investment in technology must demonstrate clear benefits. With video conferencing there are generally two that are often quoted - saving travel costs and environmental benefits. The current economic climate means that the second of these is no longer the burning issue it once was, and the former is more difficult to measure than it seems at first glance. The problem is that while travel costs can be measured, the savings made because video conferencing was used instead are harder to quantify.

This can mean that the business incentive for increasing the use of video could be muted from a narrow financial perspective. However, take a wider look at the value proposition and the position changes.

Among existing users of video conferencing, both frequently quoted benefits are recognised, but only travel cost savings are really thought of as important. What is more interesting are the secondary benefits, which all revolve around more effective and efficient collaborative and individual working. These benefits in particular appear to be magnified as the adoption of video becomes more widespread across an organisation and as frequency of its use increases.

Once the financial imperative is understood, the things that are holding adoption back fall into two categories - technology and people.

Many organisations have taken a half-hearted or tentative approach to installing video conferencing systems; they have put them in the boardrooms where only a select few people have access; they buy different, often incompatible, systems when they do broaden deployments to other areas; or they have been slow to roll out video to regular desktop, laptop and mobile devices. Generally, training is after the event rather than getting everyone up to speed and familiar at the time of installation. In many cases there are disconnects between the needs of the business, those in IT running the video conferencing setups and the facilities groups that managed the rooms and the workplace.

From the individual's perspective, the technology is perceived as hard to use, unreliable and probably not worth trying without a fair amount of hand holding. Many are already uncomfortable being 'on camera', something that's often not helped if the primary use of video conferences is for mass meetings, where the screen enhances a feeling of formality and not even the friendliness of a handshake or shared cup of coffee are on offer.

No wonder the ones who embrace video the most are those most comfortable with the technology and those in senior positions or with the greatest access. Digital natives, the young group most likely to be very comfortable with video are much less likely to be embracing video in the workplace - why? It is probably simply because they typically are not in sufficiently senior positions to take advantage. Given the potential productivity benefits, this would seem to be a huge mistake.

Most of the technology challenges surrounding video have a direct impact on the people issues too. Past experiences colour current judgment, and many will have had bad experiences with video conferencing, which knock their confidence.

Despite these negative perceptions, current technology has moved on a great deal. Video and audio quality can be incredibly high, interoperability issues are largely contained, and it can be easy and reliable to set up video calls if the right investment decisions have been taken.

Video can be used on every device from a smartphone to big screens in the boardroom and the formality of call setup in advance should be a thing of the past, making it simpler to encourage more frequent usage and familiarity on all screens. This breadth and increased frequency of use is when the real benefits of productivity and collaboration really kick in, but of course requires funding.

Those with video already will often find a mix of systems, some of which will require upgrading to gain consistency across all their video platforms and almost all will require further investment in software platforms to ensure that even the smallest mobile devices can be added into the video mix.

Consistency, widespread availability and encouragement to use video regularly will have a real impact on adoption and if this is mixed with induction education to build early familiarity and further training on how to feel comfortable, relaxed and proficient on camera, both people and technology challenges will have been adequately addressed.

It might require some investment in a mix of hardware, some upgrades, software and services, but creating a democratic and pervasive communication culture that is comfortable with using video will pay off.

For some thoughts on how to finance the changes required to address an enterprise video conferencing strategy as a whole, download this free report.