by David Dobrin

Conferencing Technology Takes Over for Slashed Travel Budgets

Mar 15, 20026 mins
Enterprise Applications

I ONCE MET A WOMAN ON A PLANE heading to Chicago who had logged 275,000 miles so far that year?and it was August. She bought companies for General Electric, and a lot of those companies were in South Africa, Thailand and Brazil. To do her job, she was averaging more than 1,000 miles a day in the air. In Mexico City, she picked up the Airphone and started making calls. Only on the approach to Chicago did she put it down.

I’m not terribly sympathetic to these road warrior heroics. Did she really have to be there in person for all those meetings? The phone is a wonderful invention?something she apparently already had figured out; if she needed to review documents, there’s Web conferencing or videoconferencing.

Before Sept. 11, there was little debate: If a meeting was really important, you had to be there. Post Sept. 11, the travel picture has changed. Yet companies still need to hold global meetings. Now that there is a strong sentiment not to fly, businesses must figure out how else to facilitate important meetings among people in other countries and on other continents.

To hold important meetings among a disparate audience, there are three technologies available: teleconferencing, Web conferencing (using the Internet to share files while talking on the phone) and videoconferencing (which can be combined in various ways with the other two).

None of the technologies is as good as being there in person, especially when the meeting crosses cultures, borders, languages and time zones (in other words, when a meeting is global). Yet when travel isn’t an option, one technology works better than another for specific kinds of meetings. Therefore, treat each technology as having a different kind of business use or purpose. If the CIO can’t get the team together in person, he should run the meeting in a way that recognizes the limitations of conferencing technology.

A lot of CIOs think that their job ends when they buy the right conferencing technology. Think again. CIOs have a responsibility to see that any technology is used effectively. Besides, CIOs are investing IT money (no, it’s not coming out of the decimated travel budget), so they want to make sure their investments are put to good, effective use.

Therefore it’s necessary to recognize where remote conferences?when conducted correctly?are genuinely more effective than the in-person alternatives.

Look at Web conferences. As an analyst, I listen to a lot of earnings reports. Three years ago, CEOs did these meetings in person with key analysts or else did them much less effectively as teleconferences. Now, Web conferencing technology has taken over.With Web conferencing, a company can bring in many more analysts, and indeed, it is now routine to time earnings reports so that they can include the European community. For their part, the analysts can ask questions and listen to answers. From the company’s perspective, no one has to waste time and money putting on an event.

Web conferencing is optimal when a meeting is basically a form of broadcast, where one person does most of the talking but there may be a few questions from the listeners. The technology is also effective when the speaker works from a document such as an earnings report or a PowerPoint presentation.

For global meetings, Web conferencing surpasses teleconferencing for broadcasting purposes because differences in language or time zones are exacerbated with teleconferences. With a shared document, the meeting can be more inclusive for a longer period of time. Conversely, if teleconferencing is used for broadcasting, the meeting should be shortened accordingly.

There are times when a meeting demands real interaction, and videoconferencing seems like a viable solution. But be forewarned that the technology leaves a lot to be desired, particularly when an international crowd is involved.

A year or so ago, I was on a global project for a large American electronics company where the Irish contingent felt (quite justly) that their needs were not being respected by the team as a whole. The company’s solution was to hold meetings using videoconferencing.

It was a nightmare. First of all, a lot of these videoconferences started at 1 p.m. (6 p.m. Irish time) and went on in the way of undisciplined meetings everywhere. When I was on (and I was on a lot), I tried to include our Irish colleagues, but I often failed?forgetting to look in the camera when things got interesting and neglecting to respond if the people in Ireland raised their hands.

By using videoconferencing purely as a substitute for an in-person meeting, we forced everyone to put in the same amount of time?and even more attention?that they put into a regular meeting. Yet we got only the illusion of personal contact.

Videoconferencing works better when only a few people are involved and when the meetings don’t have much formal structure. In essence, videoconferencing is fine when used by two people with Web cameras having a short conference but falls short when used by 20 people from three countries in an all-day marathon.

To facilitate communication on a global scale, there are three rules of thumb for using these technologies in a more nuanced way. First, the more broadcasting there is in a meeting, the more appropriate teleconferencing or Web conferencing is. But don’t expect the broadcast to be as effective as in-person broadcasts. Second, conferencing technologies put more strain on participants, so make videoconferences or Web conferences shorter than the corresponding meetings would be, and involve fewer people. Third, don’t expect any technology to substitute for travel. The remote participants at a Web conference just won’t take away what they would if they were meeting in person.

While wholesale travel is now no longer possible, remote conferencing can be enhanced when more reliance is placed on asynchronous technologies. A friend of mine tried to use Web conferences for sales pipeline meetings, rather than flying all over the world. They didn’t work too well; the Web conferences were not nearly as effective as the face-to-face meetings, where he would glare at a salesperson who claimed a customer was in the bag and the salesperson would quail and retreat.

But the Web conferences got more effective when he required salespeople to file frequent progress reports and then used Web conferencing to hold impromptu meetings when the report seemed to call for his help. He couldn’t glare during these meetings, but he often didn’t need to.

While remote conferencing technology can satisfy some global communication needs, accept the fact that you may have to meet in person.