Videoconferencing: What's The Right Use?

Here's one approach that surprised me.
You probably know people like Mike Healey--always thought provoking, and so rapid fire that he needs a rewind button. Whoa, stop, rewind. What did you just say?

I had one of those conversations this week with Mike, who's president of IT consultancy Yeoman Technology Group and a regular InformationWeek contributor. Mike let this one fly as we talked about collaboration and how his company, with people scattered around the country, use videoconferencing: "We never use it at a meeting where there's an agenda."

Stop. Rewind. What's that, Mike?

Mike's teams use video predominantly for ad hoc, catch-up, what's-new-with-you kinds of casual discussions, and almost never for formal conference calls with a clear agenda, supporting docs, deadlines, etc. Mike's teams are constantly collaborating online, but in those formal cases they almost always use a webconferencing tool, where they can share their screens and do markups in real time.

This experience flies in the face of what I'd expect. I rarely use videoconferencing, but I'm hugely interested in how people will use it in business, as quality options become more widely available. (See Microsoft's $8.5 billion Skype deal.) IT organizations will have to help their companies figure out where videoconferencing works and doesn't. I mostly hear about people using it for the formal work, like key client meetings, formal progress reports, budget meetings. I often hear of telepresence systems being used for executive council meetings, especially with international teams.

But I don't expect video in the informal settings, where people are just chatting about how the weekend was and what's coming in the week ahead. In fact, in a recent Ars Technica piece about video phone options that sparked more than 100 comments, the most common reaction seems to be that people don't want video for casual conversations, since they want to reserve the option of not really paying attention. Wrote one commenter:

I think people like having just voice conversations. It allows them to multi-task. When I'm talking to someone on the phone, I can also check my emails, sort through my mail, eat something, and frankly be completely not interested in what the person is saying. Doing a video call doesn't allow me to do any of that, because the video of me betrays my divided attention.

Mike has found that it's the prolonged, formal discussions, even if people are paying full attention, where video is difficult. That's because there’s greater pressure on visual cues in those high-intensity situations, including maintaining eye contact, and he finds that's stressful to maintain via video for 30 minutes or more.

What Mike understands so well, and what he's both living in his work and writing about, is the tie between culture and collaboration tools. Collaboration tools don't come with a cultural manual--teams need to figure out for themselves where they make the most sense for each environment. Companies need to offer some guidance here--offer best practices to help people sort through the best collaboration tool for particular situations.

When I wrote recently that videoconferencing needs to prove its worth by sparking creativity, not just lowering travel costs, one reader responded:

The problem isn't the technology; it is the mindset of layers of management who can't understand how a geographically diverse group of people can have the same types of interactions as people who are co-located, with a simple investment in Instant Messaging and a Webcam. I was told by my manager that he had never heard of a remote management situation working unless the manager was working with peers. Yet, all of our upper management are not co-located with the people they supervise!?!

As this pro says, it isn't the technology. It's how the tools fit into the culture. Do you want it for ad hoc work, or formal meetings? Where is the opportunity for video to make your workday better, and where does it risk killing productivity?

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