With the technology now available to enable most business meetings to take place remotely, videoconferencing is a growing industry. Where there is a need to add a physical presence to an information exchange, organisations can quickly and affordably link the parties using videoconferencing systems.
A few years ago, there were predictions that face-to-face meetings would soon become obsolete. Yet despite increased take-up of videoconferencing, it has not proved a universal panacea to the logistical problems of getting people in diverse locations to communicate.
Duncan Feakes, managing director of Individual Communications which supplies videoconferencing products, says users need to choose systems carefully to suit their particular needs.
“Customers often come to us believing they need a particular type of solution, which we did not think suited their purpose. We’ve recommended a different solution, and even sometimes ended up selling a lower priced system.”
Feakes says that after a system is installed, the users tend to take some time to adjust to the range of possibilities it offers.
“Very often there is a reluctance within the company to stop doing things the way they have always been done. If people usually travel once a month, they may be reluctant to stop doing that, perhaps because they regard travel as a perk and fear losing it.
“There can also be problems with people who don’t like technology. But once people get in front of a system and see how much time it can save them, they come round to the idea.”
For MWB Business Exchange, which manages serviced offices throughout the UK, videoconferencing has opened up new areas of profitability. Product manager Oliver Olsen explains: “We recently put a new system into some of our centres, enabling us to offer a network of videoconferencing. We noticed that many of our clients were incurring a lot of time, travel, hotel and food costs to go to an hour’s meeting. When we put videoconferencing in place, there were substantial cost savings.
“It’s a case of people not having to leave the building to have an ordinary business day. They can meet people in the US and New Zealand on the same day, get documents transferred and everything recorded. We know a PR firm which has begun to pitch for business in New Zealand and Australia and the whole process has taken place on videoconferencing.”
There are those who believe the market is slow to realise the benefits of videoconferencing. Richard Fella, a director of Videoconferencing Europe, says that although his company has sold many units in its specialist field of IT and telecommunications, sales have not risen as quickly as he expected.
“It’s mind-boggling when people don’t take up this type of system, because it will pay for itself in months. We’ve installed units for a pharmaceutical company which has offices across Europe. The chief executive was fed up with travelling and seeing the inside of airports. He hasn’t stopped his travelling, but instead of travelling seven times a month he might only do it two or three times.”
The trend towards using videoconferencing in lieu of a certain percentage of meetings is widespread. Ian Clarke, marketing director for Polyspan, which provides videoconferencing equipment, stresses: “It does not replace the face-to-face meeting in all cases. If there is a new product to take to market, people still opt for a meeting. But the technology is being used to replace some of the meetings they would normally attend.”
Clarke says the drudgery of the routine meeting can be avoided through a videoconference. “How many half-hour meetings do you go to where it’s taken an hour and a half to get there? If you have to do that every week or every month, you soon grow tired of it. People appreciate the ability to meet by video for two out of three meetings, or three out of four.”
Some of the providers of videoconferencing equipment who set up in its earlier stages became discouraged by the lack of response and moved out of the field. Vince Singleton, managing director of Resolution NTS, says that in his view the videoconferencing revolution never took off as predicted.
Singleton says: “Videoconferencing held a lot of promise but never made the critical mass. Seven years ago, when ISDN was new and quite cheap and the hardware costs had come down, we believed that everybody would jump on the bandwagon and go for videoconferencing along with data conferencing. That has not been the case. I think video was only ever a gimmick in the majority of cases, for what you gained by having a visual image of the person with whom you were speaking.
“When it comes down to communicating with people, the telephone tends to be enough. If you have a video link you can read the way people act, but that never really seemed to convince anybody.”
The key to successful implementation of videoconferencing is knowing who is likely to get the most out of it, says MWB’s Olsen.
“Almost everyone who has used it in our offices has decided it is a good thing to use, so we haven’t had anyone turn it down yet. Where people assumed videoconferencing wouldn’t be right for them, we wouldn’t try it out.”
Lisa Honan is a director of Eye Network, which arranges meeting rooms to link business people worldwide. Videoconferencing facilities are central to the service the company provides.
“Anybody can videoconference, but our main clients are in the legal profession. Solicitors and barristers are being encouraged by their professional organisations to interview witnesses or take expert testimony in this manner. They can hire a boardroom with good quality equipment. For occasional users, public facilities are perfect before they decide whether to buy their own.”
Easy access and plummeting costs have been good for the industry, says Keith Gyford, technical director of First Connections. These factors have led to a much-needed flexibility.
Gyford explains: “In the early days, the ethos was that the equipment went into the boardroom for the directors to use. The only problem is that the boardroom is probably the most difficult room for a senior professional to book for a conference. Those who could have got the most benefit from it, the other managers and senior professionals within the company, weren’t able to access it.
“Over the last couple of years the entry price for systems has dropped to less than &£10,000 for a large meeting room, and about &£1,000 to put it on someone’s PC. More people are putting it on their desktops and rollabout systems can be moved into several different rooms.
“Multi-point conferencing is a fact of daily life for Boeing in Seattle, which we’re involved in a large project with. The companies participating in the project are spread all over the world and communicate everyday through multi-point conferences.”
Recruitment agency Brook Street UK has implemented videoconferencing through Videocall to allow the company’s directors to be accessible to all members of staff across the company’s 100 branches. Richard Wright, network manager of Brook Street, says videoconferencing has enhanced the company’s human resources function.
“Senior personnel can get directly involved with all employees without placing more demands on their time. For example, at a recent induction for new recruits, one of Brook Street’s senior personnel used the videoconferencing facility to introduce himself to the new staff.”
Brook Street also uses videoconferencing to inform staff about company policy, allowing for consistency of messages with the US parent company. Wright notes: “By using videoconferencing as an internal communications tool, senior personnel have been able to conduct meetings with each other both in the UK and US. These meetings tend to be more focused, which enables us to reach decisions far quicker than with other forms of communication.”
The company plans to use videoconferencing for interviews in the future, believing that this would save time and allow fast fulfilment of placements. Wright expects that as more companies take on videoconferencing, there will be greater interaction between applicants, industry and internal staff.
With all this evidence, Richard Fella remains puzzled by those who have not seen the videoconferencing light. “There are a lot more companies that could make use of this technology than are actually doing so. Either people can’t get round the idea of counting the beans that it would cost them to sit in traffic, or they like sitting in traffic.”