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Video conferencing - why use it?

By Rob Bamforth

What is it with video conferencing?


The technology has been around for decades; it's been seen as an inherent part of sci-fi on film and TV over a similar period; networks from fibre to 3G have been touted as being great for it; and yet it still doesn't appear to have made the transition from unusual to everyday.


Some of the fault lies with technology. Video conferencing was once cumbersome and difficult to use, which has engendered a persistent perception of users needing handholding. Differences between vendors and systems have led to stubborn interoperability issues, which even standards have struggled to completely eradicate. Plus, there are lingering inconsistencies between any single vendor's own systems as they make rapid product improvements in what is still a relatively dynamic sector.


There have been many technical advances in business video systems, but according to a recent worldwide survey, commissioned by Polycom, of over 800 existing business video conferencing users, over a quarter find video conferencing to be too complicated, and making it easier to use is the number one thing most believe would increase usage.


The consumer experience of video conferencing has evolved significantly too. While the marketing of video calling over 3G phones turned out to be a complete flop and even mighty Apple has not been able to switch everyone into a mobile video call with FaceTime, there is no doubt that video usage has become more popular elsewhere. The usage might not be regular 'calling' or 'conferencing' but through a combination of easy (and free) tools like Skype, cheap video cameras and YouTube uploads, more have become acclimatised to the use of video.


The quality of the experience might often be poorer than that of business video conferencing, but the user is comfortable with it, and this is critical to generating more widespread use of video for business. User comfort, or the lack of it, is a major reason that holds back the adoption of video conferencing. It has not yet become as natural a thing to do as making a phone call in the workplace.


Does there need to be more widespread business use of video? Yes, but the reasons are more complex than portrayed by early video conferencing solution marketing messages. Saving money by reducing the amount of business travel is certainly a prime driver for increasing the use of video. These are tangible savings, which although rarely actually measured by most organisations are at least directly attributable.


While they are positive, travel savings are generally insufficient to stimulate sufficient investment in video and it is here that the less tangible, but potentially far more valuable benefits, become more important. Part of the benefit in travel reduction is in reality saving time; travel time, of course, but also setup time, 'waiting for someone to respond' time and time spent afterwards trying to sort out what it was all about.


This can be far more critical than simply saving a business traveller from a tedious journey.

The NHS in Lancashire and Cumbria has implemented tele-health services using high definition video to normalise behavior, meaning patients feel comfortable and are able to easily connect at the touch of a button.  This approach has worked specifically very well for renal patients, reducing the need for hospital visits and allowing a large network of doctors to collaborate without scheduling or travel restrictions.


Removing wasted time not only makes individuals more efficient, it will also be speeding up the overall decision-making process and therefore customer responsiveness. These benefits are all harder to define and measure for a straightforward ROI calculation, but most people know they are there from the first time they picked up a phone to avoid spending time making a journey.


The thing about phone calls is they can only be of real value if the caller knows they can call someone wherever they need or want to, and knows the recipient will have a means of answering. i.e. ubiquitous communications. Adding video to re-introduce the non-verbal aspects back into remote communication seems a natural progression, but only if it touches everybody, equally.


There are many organisations that have already have some video conferencing systems, but with different levels of adoption. In some there are pockets of frequent or proficient users; it might be the main board, a team of engineers or a distributed marketing group. In others there are handfuls of systems that sit idle; meeting rooms used for other purposes, executive desktops that no one else is allowed to touch, or systems no one remembers quite how they work.


To encourage individuals to feel more comfortable with video in a business setting requires a shift in the attitude and culture of the organisation. Video needs to become a normal, everyday activity, used by everyone, wherever they are (any room, any device) whenever it is required. It needs to be instilled in an organisation from top to bottom and in an individual's working practices from day one.


Why?


Confidence.


It might feel like a bigger leap, but just like many other forms of communication - public speaking, using the phone, writing letters, document sharing - not only do the right sort of facilities need to be in place, but people need to feel comfortable to use them and to get the most out of them.


It takes practice, but with regular use, anyone can become an effective communicator in any medium, including video, and better communication builds better collaboration and ultimately a more efficient and effective business. For a more detailed look at cultures of video adoption, click here for a free report based on the worldwide survey of over 800 video conferencing users