To Teleconference or Not To Teleconference, that Is the Question!

There is a lot of talk these days about how people should be doing more conference calling to save money. We all know, however, that there are some things you just can't do or information you just can't get in a conference call that you can in a face-to-face meeting. Below are some considerations to think about when deciding on whether you really need a face-to-face or whether a conference call or videoconference will do.

  1. Consider the purpose of getting these people together and what you hope to achieve.
  2. Examine all your communication options and whether a conference call is the best way to get what you need to have a successful meeting. Maybe what needs to be done can just be done by email or in an email chat room? Ask yourself, does it really need a fully facilitated meeting? Does the meeting goal depend on observing body language or high levels of personal interaction, trust, and relationship building?
  3. How many people will be involved? Remember that if you have 12 people involved, each person only has, on average, 5 minutes to speak. Don't engage people if they are not going to participate.
  4. How highly dependent is the content on visual images that you need to walk your participants through. Will it be detrimental if they can't see what is going on?
  5. If you have a highly distributed group you are getting together, what will be the effect of different time zones on people being able to be there and alert. This is an increasingly more important consideration as more businesses go global.

Once you know the answers to these questions, you can then determine whether it is a plain vanilla teleconferencing that is needed, or a video conference, or a real face-to-face meeting.

Cutting Edge Technology with a Human Touch

Fifteen years ago video conferencing was in its infancy. Despite the semi static transmissions and multi-second delays in audio, it was still a great liberator that provided tremendous convenience and cost-containment for training, sales meetings, inter-office meetings, and more. Teleconferencing has since come into its own, and is so now so cost effective and easy to use that it has moved from workplace to family applications.

Long distance phone charges were a big hurdle for military families as recently as the mid 1990s when sailors were deployed at sea for 6 to 12 months. Security was a paramount concern. Batch transmissions of email messages were a ‘hot’ innovation before the Internet made secure transmissions possible.

Today most soldiers enjoy the benefits of regular communications with their families via phone and email. This lessens the separation anxiety. But it is still hard, especially for young children who don’t see their deployed mom or dad for six to 12 months at a time.

As an illustration of how far we’ve come, recently 50 soldiers from the 108th Air Refueling Wing departed McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey on September 15, 2007 with donated video conferencing equipment. This equipment enables them to chronicle their experiences and stay in touch with their families in high touch, high tech way. That really is the beauty of video capabilities. The old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words rings true today more than ever.

We hope that other businesses around the country will donate video equipment to local military units so they can visually keep in touch and feel that human connection.

The Four Stages of Online Team Interactions: Results from Academia

Because distance learning and teleconferencing and videoconferencing are becoming so commonplace these days, and because people find it harder to foster the kinds of interactions they get when they are face-to-face, university researchers are looking into the dynamics of online interpersonal interactions in team working environments to see if they can understand what is going on and make the experience more effective.

Brian Hoyt an Ohio University professor studied how teams interact in the online environment and found out there are four distinct and progressive stages of interactions: socialization, presentation, interaction, and closure. In his study, he found out that the initial socialization stage was incredibly important and should never be skipped. What he also found out was that people running the online teams generally wanted to skip this stage and plunge right into the meeting content. This is a mistake!

It is crucial to have introductions, have people express their interest or expectations, and perhaps even participate in an icebreaker before beginning. This is not wasted time, as some might think. Hoyt and his colleagues found out that when the socialization stage was present, participants were more engaged and the chat and work sessions were more dynamic then when it was skipped.

So keep that in mind when trying to build a team from a dispersed group of people, err on the side of socialization, at least initially. Your team will be more productive and more energized if you let a little personality get through.

Webcasting in Government: The New Indispensable Tool

To give people living in New York more access to their government and governing processes, earlier this year, Eliot Spitzer, the Governor of New York issued an executive order requiring all state agencies, public authorities, boards, and departments to broadcast their meetings on the Internet by July. Although not on quite such a grand scale, many small municipalities are adopting webcasting as a way to reach out to those they serve by webcasting legislative meetings and making archived, key word searchable copies of them available on the Web so people can assess them at their leisure.

What some cities have found is this allows more community and media knowledge of what is going on and saves time and money by no longer having to have staff make and mail out CDs of the meetings for those who request them.

Communities that have initiated webcasting, like Hesperia, California have found that with their webcasting that fewer people are coming to meetings, but the number of people viewing the proceedings, both in the live webcast, as well as those archived has gone way up. It is easy to see why. If you have ever been to a county board meeting, wanting to hear or talk about one of the topics on the agenda, many times you have to sit through hours of discussion on other topics before the one of interest to you comes up. Provided the archived webcasts have key word search capabilities, a viewer can connect only to the part of the meeting or the topic they are interested in.

Webcasting of legislative or other government meetings are generating a lot of interest and use in rural communities and states where there is no universal cable TV coverage and where people have to travel long distances to see what their government is up to.

Communications Etiquette: Challenges of Changing Technology

Beware of the communications faux pas that occur when a new technology or form of communication takes hold and goes mainstream in the business world.  Sometimes things that were accepted when the new form was being developed and moved forward, which generally happens in a more casual atmosphere, don't work when the tool becomes common in use in more formal settings.

Let's use text messaging as an example.  Some of the common text abbreviations like LOL (which could mean "laugh out loud” or “lots of love") just don't work, and could be considered offensive, in a business setting.  The classic example is to never say anything in text message or email for that matter that you would not say to someone's face, whether it is the person you are emailing or the person who you are talking about in the email.  This is because emails are a written record with your byline attached to them. These notes can be sent or forwarded purposefully or by mistake to others whom you might not want to know what you think about them.

Below are some good general rules for e-communication etiquette in the office.

  1. Use Instant Messaging and text messages only for short requests or immediate responses.
  2. Use email sparingly and don't expect people to respond right away.
  3. Use the phone for building rapport or to discuss delicate matters
  4. If you are going on travel and cannot be reached, leave phone and email answering messages that note this to anyone who might try to contact you.
  5. Do not use humor, sarcasm, or anything that might be considered flirtatious at work.  It might be misinterpreted and cause trouble.
  6. Do not use “emoticons” like smiley faces :) or frowny faces :( or other graphics in your emails, they make you look unprofessional.
  7. Keep a record of important decisions reached over the phone or via IM and print out a copy and file any important emails or messages.
  8. Don't say anything in an email or digital communication that you would not want to have read out loud in a staff meeting.

How To Make Your Video Conferences More Productive

Video Conference

Conference calls have been around the business world for some time and are certainly nothing new. Quality web conferencing, however, has changed the context and purpose of the traditional conference call and by introducing new exciting features has enhanced its dimensions enormously as well as decreasing the entire cost of the process.

What exactly is video conferencing? The dictionary defines what is also known as a video teleconference as "a set of interactive telecommunication technologies which allow two or more locations to interact via two-way video and audio transmission simultaneously." It is also known as visual collaboration and is a type of groupware. Video conferencing can either happen between individuals or involve multiple locations scattered throughout the world. Apart from audio and visual transmissions, video conferencing can also be utilized to share documents and a wide range of computer-displayed information. What does this mean to the average business manager? Read on and learn.

The advantages provided by video conferencing are many. Modern technology makes it easy to meet with any client anywhere and at anytime, defying geographic boundaries. It's a way to qualify clients and candidates before meeting them in person, saving time, effort and money that might otherwise be spent on traveling, food, gas and accommodations. Video conferences serve to demonstrate products and services to clients many time zones away, and can provide a conduit for training employees in another country. Although video conferencing can never replace the in-person meeting, it can, via online collaborative tools, provide you and your business with unique ways in which to interact. Some of these tools include: document sharing and text-messaging.

The following tips will help you make your next videoconference session as productive as possible. While not everything may apply to every business, all will render positive results if used correctly.

Decide upon your space

The conference room is a factor that must be decided on before even considering which equipment will work best in it. Good video conferencing facilities will consider the effect of walls and echo problems. Square rooms, for this reason, should be avoided. Tiles and carpeting have different degrees of sound absorption, all of which must be considered.

There are many fancy setups for effective video conferencing, but sometimes the easiest and most obvious is also the most effective. A U-shaped table with the display and camera at the top of the U and participants sitting around is the best acoustical arrangement possible. Almost any conference room can be adapted for use as a video conferencing site by making adjustments based on the needs of the video and audio equipment to capture signals. A basic web camera is really all you need to get started.

Know how you will use your video conferencing system

Who are the users and what role will the system play in your particular scheme of things? Will it be for an occasional chitchat or for more formal face-to-face meetings between business executives? You may not need high-definition resolution and can possibly opt for the much cheaper web cam and instant messaging if you are going to use your videoconference system for infrequent casual chats.

Along the same lines, decide how many locations you will need to connect to simultaneously and if these locations are outside of your network's firewall. How tech-savvy are your users and what kind of equipment do they have? Will you be using your system collaboratively, with many parties communicating, or will you be watching one central presentation?

Consider extraneous factors that can affect the conference experience. You want to choose a location with a neutral background that contains as few moving distractions as possible. Avoid rooms with tinted or colored light and opt always for natural lighting. Place the camera above the monitor, a few feet away from participants.

Know how much you are willing to invest in your video conferencing system

Purchasing a system can be a very costly venture. Fully customized conference rooms can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, but lower-end desktop-based systems won't very likely put a big dent in your budget. You should also calculate the costs associated with the activities you are planning to replace or enhance with your new video conferencing system.

Make a short list of vendors

It's all part of doing your homework. Compile a list of those sellers who have systems that meet your needs. Run each system through a real-life test to see how it performs before you buy. Most vendors will permit a test-drive. Some things to look for might include:

* Call reliability:

How often are you disconnected in the middle of a conversation?

*Audio-video quality:

The quality of the sound and the consistency of the picture

*Ease of Use:

Is the user interface simple or complicated to navigate?

* Standards-based:

Can your system be easily connected with other systems?

What type of network will you use for your videoconferencing traffic?

By knowing which geographic areas your videoconference will be servicing, you can ensure beforehand that the digital network you have chosen as well as the required bandwidth is available in those specific areas where the parties you wish to connect to reside. IP networks are generally cheaper than the ISDN varieties and they are easier to secure.

Don't expect perfection the first time around

Even if you choose the simple "web cam" route for your video conferencing, there are almost always problems that occur because each client has a different and usually confusing user interface for its video feature. Non-technical users will need some help in figuring out the process and should not be expected to do so on their own.

Pay attention to the lighting

The speaker and the presentation must be in view. The speaker should avoid remaining in a dark area as, if that is the case, he or she will remain in silhouette for all of the conference participants. Also avoid area that is overly flooded with light.

Always maintain eye contact

As much as possible, look participants directly in the eye even if you have to do so from a web cam.

Speak clearly

Do not speak in a monotone voice. There is nothing more boring than listening to a voice without a single variance in its pitch. In Video conferences the audio can sometimes be garbled, and for this reason, it is very important to not chew on words.

Make your presentation as interesting as possible

Participants will quickly lose interest if you as a speaker, don't sustain it with well-prepared and coherent material.

Follow other speakers' presentations with respect

Give the next person your full attention. Do not yawn or fidget as these two actions translate directly into boredom and disinterest.

Check your computer settings before the conference begins

You might even want to attempt a mock session with a colleague to iron out whatever problems you might encounter. Can your colleague see and hear you? It's better to know this before the conference begins than during it!

The video conference is the way of the future for online interaction and communication. A child of the Information Age, it is growing by leaps and bounds as a convenient and effective tool for companies everywhere around the globe. It is being used more and more, not only by the corporate world, which already appreciates its many advantages, but also by homes, small businesses and universities.

Get on the bandwagon now and set up your first company video conference. You will be amazed at the results!

Building Relationships: The Power of Audio, Web and Videoconferencing

Nothing is more important than the relationships a company builds with its customers and partners. To foster these relationships, larger companies sometimes have annual conferences where people from across the country come together to meet each other, catch up on new company products and services, and learn new ways to use the company’s system. These usually cost quite a bit of money for both the company and the participants.

 Although nothing beats a good physical face-to-face conference, just in terms of time and money it is not something that can be done more than once every year or two. And, getting together with key clients and partners only once every year or two to fill them in on what’s going on is just not sufficient to build a real relationship.

What some companies have decided to do is to still offer the once-a-year physical meeting, but to augment them with quarterly web meetings that are similar to their large conferences, but smaller in scope (50 to 75 people) and that target different market niches and that use audio and video tools to provide interaction between parties.

Due to the more intimate nature of the web meetings over the physical get together, this becomes a venue to find out how clients are actually using the product and its features and get them to share what they are doing and what they are finding out about it. It also proves to be a great vehicle to brainstorm and troubleshoot with clients about products under development; and provides a great way to find out what the client’s priorities are for new products, allowing the meeting convener to better prioritize product enhancements or new product releases.

Parenting from Distance: Staying in Touch via Video Conferencing

It is hard enough to be a good parent when you and your family live in the same house; but when you either have to be on the road a lot or live across the state, across the country, or around the world from your family or children it's even tougher. With the globalization of business and services, long-term, long-distance travel for some jobs is now a necessity. This has made it tough for some parents to stay as personally and emotionally in touch with their loved ones as they would like.

The mobility of the US workforce has also had a tremendous impact on grandparents, who now many times live far away from their grandchildren and who maybe get to see them once or at most twice a year, if that often.

To stay in touch with those you love, sometimes you have to get creative and one of the best ways to do that is to web conference with them. Seeing someone and how they react in a conversation and vice versa is a powerful tool for staying close and emotionally in touch. Seeing is also much more comforting and real for children than simple emails or letters and photographs.

Because video conferencing is so cheap and easy, compared to flying or driving long distances, you can also increase the amount of time you get to see your kids or grandkids, especially in those early years when they are growing up.

The cost of video conferencing and other modes of web-enabled video has dropped precipitously so this can be a viable option for those who want to stay in touch and maintain strong personal relationships with other people in their lives