Global team talks — virtually
With travel budgets tight or non-existent, has virtual conferencing developed enough to offer an acceptable alternative?
Virtual conferencing isn’t a new concept, but what sets modern software applications apart is the ability to interact with the other participants and communicate with one another from their own workspace. No complicated nor expensive equipment is needed, merely some software and a network connection.
This is leaps and bounds from the early days of video conferencing and there is virtually no jerkiness or stuttering as there was back then.
The basic tenet of screen sharing ensures that all participants look at exactly the same file and discuss the exact same piece of information. It sounds simple, but means in practice there is no more checking which page are we talking about or describing in detail the area of graphic or drawing being discussed and therefore running the time-consuming risk of talking at cross-purposes.
The beauty comes in being able to screen share with a geographically diverse team and quickly hammer out an issue. Control of the mouse and application can be given to other parties to further facilitate the discussion. There is no need for all to have the application software — it is “shared” for the duration of the conference.
Because there is no travel involved the carbon footprint is very, very low. The cost is considerably less as well, typically a licence could cost between £6 and £30 per month (though depending on the vendor there may be a minimum number to purchase).
Many virtual conferencing systems are easily adapted to providing seminars or e-learning for training diverse teams on small subjects, such as updates to the intranet or new cad standards — I would suggest no more than a lunchtime’s worth of training, otherwise it becomes onerous.
The software will let delegates post questions and the training session can be recorded for offline playback at a later date. Some will let the trainer know who is focused — that is to say who is actually watching the session and who is reading their email while logged in.
Well-known vendors of conferencing software include Microsoft with its Live Meeting, Citrix with GoToMeeting, Cisco with WebEx, Adobe with ConnectProAdobe Flash Player runtime, already installed on over 98% of internet-connected personal computers.
Lesser known, though equally good and useful, are Zoho and Beam Your Screen (which is unique in being a UK-based company). Many offer different prices depending on the number of users and whether it is one-to-many or many-to-many.
In terms of choosing a brand, I would suggest trialling a number — maybe one of the well-known makes and one of the less so for comparison. All systems offer an option to try before you buy, or have free versions.
Look out for latency — how long the other end has to wait before the screen changes — and consider features such as recording the session and whether audio conferencing can be included in the cost.
Having said all this however, virtual conferencing cannot replace face-to-face interaction. The key to success in using web meetings is to know the limitations. While web meetings may be quick and efficient, do not expect to generate group decisions, inspire and engender teamwork or build relationships with clients.
Simon Johns is an IT consultant and former director of IT at Broadway Malyan. Visit his website at since68.wordpress.com