Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Take a Conference, Save the Carbon

Conference calls have always been a tool of the trade for business, but one that is used sporadically or for special projects. Web conferencing is the Internet equivalent. By adding display screens to the discussion you can include bullet charts and graphics in the conversation. Still, it's hit and miss usage. When would it make sense to integrate conferencing into daily activities as a way of doing business, instead of just another tool for doing business?

There are several forces at work that may indeed cause such a tipping point. One is the advance of technology. Everybody has a computer on their desk. Many conference rooms are set up with Internet access and large electronic display screens or projectors. Speaker phones are everywhere. Where speakers cause too much disruption to non-participants, telephone headsets are an inexpensive solution. The move to enterprise VoIP is merging computers and telephones into coordinated, if not combined, voice and data solutions.

Technology makes it possible to do things that people don't necessary embrace just because they can. We all have our set work patterns honed over the years. The larger the number of people who have to change to something new, the more compelling the reason has to be. That reason might soon be cost. It's hardly news that the economy is sputtering along, with many businesses from banking to manufacturing scrambling for revenue. The idea of "cost cutting" seems to automatically suggest "chopping heads." But at some point the lack of adequate human resources results in poor business performance, worsening the financial situation. That's when a completely different way of doing things needs to be embraced.

A third factor that may have seemed arcane only a few years ago is the environment. There's a lot more awareness now about recycling, energy efficiency and carbon footprints. Flying large numbers of employees all over the country has been standard practice in many companies. It's expensive, polluting, time consuming, and in some cases a nuisance for the traveler. But it's expected by customers, suppliers, and peer organizations. Then again, maybe not so much anymore.

These three converging forces, availability of new technology, the need to reduce costs, and a desire to do one's part to help the environment, may actually be vectors acting in the same direction. Weigh the savings of lower travel expenses, recovered productive time, and reduced carbon production against the incremental cost to make audio, video and Web conferencing the defacto means of team collaboration. Instead of having groups walk, drive or fly to a common location to exchange ideas, they met in person less frequently but communicate electronically more frequently. Electronic collaboration can include team members that were previously relegated to the fringes, such as home workers, road warriors, field reps, ad-hoc consultants, and those stationed at remote sites.

One of the advertised benefits of hosted VoIP solutions is the ability to create virtual organizations that include far-flung members. Group members and anyone calling-in can't really tell that everyone isn't in the same physical space. An IP based phone system doesn't really care where on the network the instruments are located. Across the country is just as close as across the room.

Audio conferencing extends the concept of virtual meetings to include large groups such as independent sales representatives, field offices, franchisees, and prospective customers. Reservation-less conferences let you initiate an audio conference by dialing a toll free number and having participants do likewise. PIN codes give you access to a private conference room on a per-minute or volume rate whenever you need to get together.

Web Conferencing has also gotten simpler and cheaper. You can pay per-minute or a low flat fee per month to have a Web conference room that doesn't require participants to download any software. They just use the Internet connected computers they already have. You can present Microsoft PowerPoint slides or JPEG images, share an application or document, conduct polls in real-time, text chat, and use drawing tools on a virtual white board. All of this using 128 bit SSL security to protect your intellectual property from snoops.

Combine audio conferencing via telephone with Web Conferencing via Internet tools and you've got an environment where teams can work together on a regular basis without the disruption of having to get up and go somewhere. Need more face to face? That's where video conferencing and the very high-end telepresence can create a more in-person feel to meetings. By integrating this collaboration technology into normal daily work practice, you may be surprised by how seldom you really need to "go to a real meeting."

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