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Beaming Into the Big Meeting

May 8, 2010 | Howard Lichtman


06MEETING_CA0-articleLarge[1].jpgREMOTE Justin Forer at home in Miami Beach talking to a colleague in Pennsylvania.

FALLOUT from a recession and ash from a volcano drove more companies than ever to try videoconferencing. Once the skies clear on both fronts, will it be time to plan more business trips or will virtual meetings continue to get the job done?

As a technology consultant for the IBB Consulting Group, Justin Forer of Miami takes 100 to 150 flights a year and also participates in one to four audio or video conferences a day. His answer? "I do believe you can get quite a bit done via teleconferencing" -- especially things like project updates and clarifications.

But when it comes to creating strategies, general brainstorming or generating new business, a trip is better, he said. He sees videoconferences as just another tool in his arsenal of business interactions.

Revenue from videoconferencing grew during the recession, according to the Gartner research firm. That growth is expected to continue as the economy recovers. Gartner forecasts that videoconferencing will generate more than $8.6 billion in revenue worldwide in 2013, compared with less than half that amount in 2009.

If companies have both options at their disposal, how can they deploy them successfully?

Videoconferencing "is well suited to routine kinds of information exchange activities" -- for example, a regular meeting of a management team, said Patricia L. Mokhtarian, chairwoman of the Transportation Technology and Policy Graduate Program at the University of California, Davis.

The technology "enables activities that need to happen in a regular workflow in spite of the fact that people are across the country or across the world," said Laura Neumann, senior user researcher for Microsoft, which offers videoconferencing.

And videoconferences can serve as backup in an emergency, as the volcanic eruption in Iceland showed. Companies offering the service found themselves inundated with calls as travelers were unable to make it to meetings.

Among those stranded was Stephen Prentice, a London-based analyst for Gartner who was scheduled to deliver the keynote address at his company's wireless, networking and communications conference in San Diego.

Once he realized that he would be unable to fly to San Diego, Mr. Prentice, along with technical people in London and in San Diego, spent three days figuring out the best way for him to deliver the speech remotely. The title of the speech he had planned to give in person? "The Art of Being There When You're Not," about the use of virtual worlds.

With video, it is much harder to gauge an audience's reaction, so it is important to have "back channels" from the audience to the speaker, Mr. Prentice said. While he gave his speech, a colleague in San Diego instant-messaged his impressions of the audience's reaction (were they interested? bored?) to a colleague sitting next to Mr. Prentice in London. His colleague in London wrote down the comments using a marker on a whiteboard. A colleague also monitored and relayed Twitter postings by participants during the speech.

The technical quality of the delivery was "perfectly acceptable" considering the constraints he was facing, Mr. Prentice said.

When videoconferencing for meetings is makeshift or bare bones, it can be harder to hold a smooth conversation and read the room for visual and vocal cues. Jittery or pixelated pictures can be distracting. Sound delays can be jarring, making it hard to interrupt the speaker (good for keeping rudeness at bay, bad for cutting off nonstop droners).

"It really interrupts the natural flow of the conversation" to have technical issues, said Charles Stucki, head of the TelePresence business at Cisco. He says the goal of a company's meeting technology -- with its absence of voice delays, high-quality picture, curved tables and large curved screens -- "is not to remind me that you're not here."

This type of system requires a major financial commitment. A three-screen TelePresence meeting service -- including labor, equipment and bandwidth costs -- runs from $10,000 to $20,000 a month. For many companies that can be a substantial savings -- both in time and money spent traveling, Mr. Stucki said.

Still, "it's not like you're never going to travel again," Mr. Stucki said. For example, he would have preferred to be in Norway last month to toast Cisco's deal to buy Tandberg, a videoconferencing company that is based there. But because of the volcano, he (like Mr. Prentice) was stranded in London. So the company set up a global Champagne toast to the deal involving hundreds of employees in nine cities around the world -- a rare case where videoconferencing was used mainly to enact a ritual.

Toasting a deal, meeting a customer for a meal, having a personal conversation with a colleague -- the trip will always trump video in these areas.

Business trips are superior for things like finding and reaching out to new customers, starting a project, soothing a client, dealing with controversy or delivering bad news, Professor Mokhtarian said.

She said such trips also make a powerful statement that videoconferences cannot: They signal that the people being visited are important. "Sometimes it's not so much the content of the meeting itself as it is the symbolic nature of the person taking the time to be there," she said.

And there are benefits for the business traveler. People like to complain about traveling, but in fact it can be enjoyable and confer status, Professor Mokhtarian said. True, "if it's a routine trip to Nowheresville, then there may not be many side benefits," she said. But a visit to an interesting location that includes dinner with a client, a weekend for sightseeing or a side trip to see family and friends can add luster to a job.

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