Communication Gets Collaborative

It’s Monday morning. The vice-president of sales has a meeting with the sales team at 9:30 a.m. at the corporate head office in Calgary, and a meeting with a major client in Halifax at 11:00 a.m.

No problem.

While some are still nascent, technologies enabling people to be in two places at once are popping up everywhere, enabling business users to conduct meetings with people from around the world from the comfort of their offices. And what these technologies could mean when it comes to cost savings has a lot of enterprises turning their heads.

Getting in touch the old-fashioned way

Not-so-new and widely used teleconferencing is one technology that is fairly priced and accessible to any sized enterprise. While larger companies might have the money for higher-end equipment, smaller companies can still access the technology.

“Certainly everyone would have the option to use something like that, and would have the facilities available to them (through third-parties),” noted Mark Quigley, associate director at Brockville, Ont.-based The Yankee Group in Canada. He noted that teleconferencing is one of the more popular types of collaborative communications, enabling many people to be linked up through a simple phone call.

But with the onslaught and popularity of the Internet, it is no surprise that a new collaborative tool for conferencing has emerged – Web conferencing.

Carriers and other companies have been offering up solutions left and right of late. In August, AT&T Corp. teamed up with WebEx Communications to unveil its Web conferencing service. Other companies, such as Evoke Communications in Louisville, Colo., and Mountain View, Calif.-based PlaceWare also offer Web conferencing solutions.

Brad Dupee, Evoke’s vice-president of business development, said that the majority of his company’s customers are businesses.

“We are a business-to-business provider. (But) there are business consumers who may be within businesses that use our service separate from an enterprise, who make the decision to use our service,” he explained. “So individuals can in fact sign up to use our service, and use our Web conferencing and Web collaboration platforms.”

In most cases, conducting a Web conference offers presenters a bit more then they would get by simply conducting a teleconference. Users simply log in at the third party’s site with a user name and password to view a presentation. If the conference is not using an audio stream, users dial in on their telephones for the audio, just as they would for a teleconference.

During meetings, users can view presentations, such as Power Point slides, .jpeg or .tiff files. And, in the case of Evoke’s Web conferences, participants are even able to type in questions to the conference leader during the presentation. While larger companies can subscribe to this type of service, some companies offer a per-minute charge, which can vary if users access an audio stream.

A road less travelled

The selling point of these services is simple: Solutions such as Web conferencing essentially eliminate the need for travel, and enable companies to open their doors to a much wider audience. That saves money and time, and offers bigger and better business opportunities. But Quigley also offered the following example: training has to be done for employees to learn how to use a specific piece of equipment. Instead of having to travel somewhere to learn how to do it, the trainees could potentially just sit down in front of their desktops, sign in, and off they go.

“You get to experience many of the same sorts of things you would had you invested that five or ten thousand dollars in flights and hotels and meals and everything else,” Quigley said. “Except you have the luxury of doing it from your desktop, so you’re saving both time and money in doing that.”

But are Canadian companies using this technology?

Quigley said that right now it would most definitely be the larger companies that would have the budget and the resources to use it efficiently.

“It’s not something that I think most smaller companies would even consider,” he added.

Industries such as medical and education could benefit from this type of technology, he pointed out, especially if it came to applications like distance learning or having a physician look at X-ray film.

But Evoke is seeing a number of smaller businesses signing up for its service, according to Dupee.

He said, “Historically audio conferencing as a standalone has been priced beyond the range of most small businesses because it is a value-added, managed service that is very expensive,” he said.

But by eliminating all of the things that would normally cost money in a teleconference – such as the need for an operator – and using a Web browser instead, the savings are passed on to the end user, he said.

While it might not be predominant right now, implementing this type of solution should be fairly easy to do here in Canada.

“As with any of these things, it’s greatly dependent on the underlying network infrastructure,” Quigley explained. “If you have a look at what’s happening in the Canadian context, you quickly see that it’s one of the most advanced in the world, both in terms of that long-haul traffic that goes between Toronto and Vancouver, let’s say, and those last-mile solutions that go from central office to house, building, desktop…Canada would most certainly be at the forefront of that.”

In terms of economies of scale, the sizes of businesses vary in Canada as compared to the U.S., he noted.

“We haven’t seen the same types of adoption patterns thus far, perhaps it hasn’t penetrated as far into the small- to medium-sized business segment, for example, as it has in the U.S.”

But that is something that will change. Quigley said that as the Internet further penetrates into business segments and as high-speed Internet continues to penetrate further across the country, it will have an effect on pricing for services such as these.

“The cost savings that are found there are simply going to be too good to resist, particularly if you are a smaller business and that bottom line is evermore important,” he said.

For that reason, Quigley predicted that going forward, this type of technology will become more prevalent. He said he sees it becoming more commonplace, particularly as high-speed services begin to roll out.

Seeing is believing

In some instances, interaction via the Web is not enough.

Wind Currents Technology, based in Washington, D.C., has been importing and distributing a variety of videophones from Taiwan for about three and a half years. And, according to the company’s president and CEO, John Monahan, Wind Currents has a broad customer base that includes businesses and people who just want to keep in touch.

“From the grandmother who is in Florida who wants to see her grandchildren in Toronto, to the military…the United States Air Force has purchased a number of these units, actually in the hundreds, to use for morale calls for service personnel overseas to stay connected with their families,” Monahan explained.

Take, for example, the Catholic University of America, also in Washington. It uses videophones from Wind Currents, as well as from other companies, to conduct medical research.

Dr. Binh Tran, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the university, said the videophones are used for telemedicine and telehealth research, and are placed in the homes of stroke patients.

“We have a research project going on now with the school of nursing here, where we use the video phones to allow nurses, instead of having to get into a car and make the home visits, use the video phones as a means of communication between the patients and their caregivers.”

The use of a regular telephone could be just as effective, but Tran noted that the video allows the nurses to build a better relationship with their patients – it creates a more personal touch, and the patients seem to prefer it, he said.

“Most of the patients are elderly, for instance, 60 years and older, and are isolated in their homes – for example, their husband or wife came down with a stroke and now they have to be full-time caregivers. So they actually crave the extra interaction. That’s what we’ve been observing.”

The research has been going on for about a year and a half to two years, but Tran noted that the phones are used in other instances as well.

“We have weekly videoconferencing planning sessions with all of our collaborators. And so that system we use is four-line ISDN in order to have multi-site conferencing,” he said.

The school uses videophones which have snapshot capabilities, as well as other systems which use IP to transfer information back and forth, Tran said.

He noted that the university has tried to stay away from computer-based IP solutions, because elderly people would then not only have to be involved in the research, but would also have to learn how to use the technology. The videophones, as far as the research has shown so far, are uncomplicated and easy for the caregivers and patients to use.

Quigley sees the use of these devices as most likely being popular amongst larger companies who have more money, and a “huge, big pipe coming in-house. They have a lot of bandwidth that they have access to compared to smaller businesses that are perhaps still on dial-up or a company that has an ISDN connection that is shared between 50 or 100 employees, for example.”

He estimated that the use of such devices is presently fairly low, but added that going forward, it could become more practicable.

“As people have more access to high-speed services, it means you can bring together that world of convergence that everyone likes to talk about,” he explained. “You can have your voice and video and everything else running over the same pipe.”

But an important consideration is to look at these devices in terms of why they might not be successful, specifically in the enterprise. While a videophone might work well in a medical situation, Quigley is unsure about the fit of such a device in the corporate world.

“I don’t know if there are a whole lot of folks out there right now that are terribly interested in having a video phone, simply because of the fact that we’re used to conversing and not having those sorts of things,” Quigley said.

One of the disadvantages to using this type of device is that etiquette could get the better of users, slowing down their productivity. As an example, Quigley pointed out that while on a phone call, he is able to check his e-mail, check Web sites for any breaking news, and even do project work using instant messaging. If he were to do that while the person he was speaking with could see him, odds are that wouldn’t make a good impression.

“It becomes more of a face-to-face conversation, where concentration has to be dedicated to that one source,” he explained.

If it did come into the enterprise on a wider basis, he said that use strictly for conference calls is what would make the most sense. He said Web conferences and teleconferences will always simply be add-ons to that face-to-face personal touch, and that need for real human contact is always going to be there. He noted that is especially strong in the enterprise arena, where all the purchases tend to be larger ones.

“The other thing to consider is that when videoconferencing and teleconferencing first began to roll out, the call was, ‘Look at all the money this is going to save on sales calls!’ Well guess what – it didn’t,” he said. “I still think that there’s great value in having that kind of face-to-face interaction. At the end of the day, that’s something that is always deemed to be necessary, I think, in selling something, in buying something.”