There’s little doubt that videoconferencing has taken hold and will continue to grow, possibly to the point that it becomes a staple of how business gets done. A confluence of current conditions, trends and tech today have enabled videoconferencing to become a realistic alternative to in-person meetings.
David Kaufman, a managing partner at Acquis Consulting Group, a management consulting firm that specializes in mobility and corporate virtual collaboration, explains three trends have influenced the ability to adopt the technology and its current move toward widespread acceptance: expense, acceptance and compatibility of different technologies.
“Some of the better technology can cost six figures for just one location — and obviously you need two; and then you’re looking at reconfiguring office space,” he says, “so the cost can run well into the millions.” Additionally, key stakeholders in many companies haven’t felt comfortable embracing the technology and frequently companies have adopted different technologies from their partners and suppliers that don’t work in concert.
“They’re always changing the types of systems and compatibility of different computers,” Kaufman explains. “As the cost goes down, and the accessibility and interoperability and interconnectivity increases, that’s going to increase the momentum of the companies using them.”
These are, in fact, among the key factors addressed by Avistar, a developer of desktop videoconferencing software, in its predictions of 2012 videoconferencing trends. According to the company’s analysts, the speed of change will continue to increase. The company points out that in the past three years alone companies have moved from hardware-based conference room solutions (the often highly pricey option) to software-only options on laptops and conducting phone calls on tablets. And as the rate of technology continues its momentum, software-only solutions as well as more cloud-based options will also gain momentum.
This is part and parcel with another of the predictions: That BYOD, or bring your own device, will go mainstream. That idea is driven by employees’ interest in adopting new technologies on their own and then expecting their companies to support the multiple kinds of platforms their individual pieces use. This also dovetails into Avistar’s forecast that consumerization of technology will continue to drive business adoption. In other words, as more and more high-tech appeals directly to the consumer (and prices become more compatible with home budgets), consumer demand drives how user-friendly platforms are, and enterprise applications delivering videoconferencing will continue to become easier to use even as they meet the demand for high security and business-class capabilities.
“It’s not like the only technology people see is what their IT department gives them,” says Scott Niesen, director of marketing at InFocus, a company known for its projectors. “With the explosion of smartphones and iPhones and the ability to use Skype or Google Talk, all of these things that people are experiencing in their day-to-day personal life raises the question of, “Why can’t I use this technology to get my job done?’”
And as people continue to adopt technology on their own and bring it into the workplace, it places a load of demands on IT departments. Avistar says the increased need for bandwidth as software and technology proliferates will place ever-increasing demands on IT departments to offer enough bandwidth to use them without impacting security or business applications. Avistar recommends IT take bandwidth management into account, along with a host of other requirements, in adopting its communications platforms.
Additionally, like Kaufman, Avistar notes that as videoconferencing reaches mainstream adoption, interoperability, scalability and availability will become critical. Companies that will find success will be those that cost-effectively break down these barriers, and videoconferencing software that doesn’t embrace contemporary standards will create barriers to adoption.
“One of the historic limitations of videoconferencing is compatibility/interoperability between these dedicated systems,” Niesen says. “They kind of only work in their own world. In a big company with a lot of office locations, that’s fine — they’re all controlled by the same IT department and it all works — but when you start wanting to bring in customers, partners or suppliers, it gets more complicated.”
The need for interoperability as well as high-quality, virtual interfaces is something InFocus is responding to. It developed the MondoPad, a platform-agnostic, 55-inch, tablet-style tool that offers everything from a virtual whiteboard to word documents. A host of applications make it simpler to use with a variety of communications technology, and because it has all the functions of a PC as well, it’s possible to replace a common classroom computer with the device.
As systems such as this evolve, Avistar believes videoconferencing will continue to proliferate. The company says just as businesses have embraced cloud computing, the next phase of communications is on-demand videoconferencing and cloud and virtual desktop-enabled services.
Niesen points to another reason why videoconferencing is reaching critical mass: “What’s really driving the use of videoconferencing in business is the advent of high-definition video cameras. The images captured are very lifelike, so when those are displayed on a computer monitor, you’re seemingly talking to somebody face-to-face.”
The human factor
In many ways, the future that Kaufman and Niesen see for videoconferencing stretches beyond technology and reduced travel and into the realms of corporate social responsibility, as well as productivity and employee engagement. After all, it’s a little difficult to bring project stakeholders from across the world into a room when it involves planes, trains, automobiles and pricey hotel rooms. And for some businesses, the factors coming into play don’t even include traveling very far.
“Companies are wanting to reduce travel, not just for the footprint that it leaves, but also for employee satisfaction,” Kaufman says. “They’re not making employees travel if they don’t need to. We’re also seeing remote location — telecommuting — becoming more popular. A lot of our clients, especially those in New York City where office space is so expensive, are encouraging people to work from home, and they’re setting them up with videoconferencing capabilities within their home. It’s all tied together: quality of life, less travel, corporate social responsibility, the environment. All this positive messaging we do see as drivers to move forward on the business case of videoconferencing.”
Niesen has seen videoconferencing become a more popular tool for distance learning, and its potential extends beyond the traditional idea of a lesson or class: “One of the things that videoconferencing is used for in the education departments is bringing experts in,” he says. “They’re connecting into the lecture hall itself. Videoconferencing is a fantastic tool for bringing that kind of knowledge transfer and access to experts.”
As both companies and knowledge communities continue to march toward a more global format, videoconferencing has the additional benefit of bringing project stakeholders together into a more intimate collaborative environment as well. Kaufman has seen videoconferencing coupled with wiki tools create an environment set for better and more productive collaboration.
“Collaboration tools — wiki, for example — enable people to collaborate on one shared environment,” Kaufman explains. “As a team builds project details, all the stakeholders can share that same view, whereas with email it’s very hard to deal with version control and managing that whole process.
“If you’re combining the interaction of videoconferencing with the interaction of these collaboration tools, it makes for an effective environment to do these global projects. It can be even more effective than doing it in person because everyone is looking at the same screen, the same file, and you can still see the video of one another.”