The Advantages Of Virtual Meetings

September 5, 2009

Source: Forbes Insights

Source: Forbes Insights

Forbes Insights published a study titled “Business Meetings: The Case for Face-to-Face“, in which the key finding was this: “the majority of executives polled believe face-to-face meetings are still crucial for building stronger, more meaningful and profitable business relationships.”  Excellent points were made in the blogosphere this week regarding this study:

  1. Forbes in a Funk over Virtual Meetings and Events (Virtual Edge)
  2. Virtual Augments Face-to-Face – Reply to Forbes and HSMAI Surveys (Virtual Insights | InXpo)

I don’t wish to question the conclusion of the Forbes Insights study – nor do I wish to have a debate on “face-to-face vs. virtual”.  Despite the fact that I’m passionate about virtual, I’m a true believer in the value of face-to-face.  What I would like to highlight is that face-to-face and virtual have unique capabilities.  Meeting planners must consider these capabilities and apply them appropriately.

With virtual, an often-touted benefit is that they’re green and carbon-friendly.  And while that’s certainly a nice side-effect, I think it’s important to focus on unique in-meeting capabilities of virtual – here are a few that come to mind:

  1. Participatory training with seamless presenter transitions – while it’s true that a face-to-face meeting is hard to beat with regard to audience participation – in a virtual meeting, there’s still plenty of room for audience participation.  In fact, with a shared whiteboard, participants can annotate a technical diagram simultaneously, which is trickier to do with more than 2 people (annotating) in a physical space.  In addition, participants can be “handed the ball” and take turns serving as the presenter – without having to stand up, walk to the front of the room and plug their laptop into the projector.  In an instant, a new presenter can start sharing her desktop applications for the rest of the meeting participants to see.  In a 3D virtual meeting (e.g. Second Life, Lotus Sametime 3D), participation becomes even richer, allowing medical students, fighter pilots (in training), computer technicians, etc. to learn by interacting with 3D objects.
  2. Meetings On Demand – what if your technical meeting needed to split up into a set of smaller focus groups?  In a physical meeting, you’d need to gather up each sub-group and go seek out new conference rooms (or, migrate into corners of the same room, which could be distracting for everyone).  Or, take another scenario whereby a senior executive wants to faciliate an ad-hoc face-to-face meeting during the coming weekend – all required participants would then need to make the necessary travel (and lodging) arrangements to get to the meeting venue.  With virtual, meetings are truly on demand – you create the meeting with the click of a mouse and the participants arrive with the click of a mouse.
  3. Putting the cards on the table – while this is difficult to quantify or prove, I believe that participants are more “at ease” in a virtual meeting and more likely to reveal thoughts that they’d otherwise be hesitant to do in person.  A virtual tradeshow is a good example.  Exhibitors have found that visitors to their booth are more transparent and revealing about budget, timeframe, decision making process, etc.  – when interacting via text chat.  The same person in a physical booth may be hesitant to reveal those details.  So for meetings that can stand to benefit from more transparency and openness (and not all of them do!), virtual can be a boon.
  4. More efficient person-to-person interactions – if you’re the chief executive of a company with 500 or more employees, I’m sure it’s hard for you to achieve the same quality time (with employees) as when you had 50 employees.  If you assemble the company at a physical meeting, it’s a challenge to mingle with the crowd and achieve any true quality – you’ll be more akin to a president or dignitary, who walks down a receiving line shaking hands and patting folks on the shoulder.  If you invite the same 500 employees to a virtual meeting or virtual event, you’ll find an easier ability to have meaningful interactions (via text chat) – including the potential to carry on multiple chats at the same time.  Employees will also find that they receive more access to the chief (and other execs) than they would in a (crowded) physical space.

So those are some advantages that come to mind for me.  What advantages have I missed?

Bringing Virtual Benefits To Business Travel

March 14, 2009

Source: Virgin America

Source: Virgin America

Recently, I embarked an a now-uncommon routine (for me) of a business trip – flying round trip on Virgin America, one of my favorite airlines.  Since most of my business these days is conducted virtually, the logistics of checking in at the airport, waiting in the security line, boarding the plane, checking into the hotel, etc. – gave me plenty of time to reflect on the dynamics of business travel.  Here are some observations:

  1. By its nature, business travel means that you’re constantly in close proximity to other businesspeople – some of whom are in your industry – or, could benefit you as a business partner (or vice versa)
  2. Those who are less outgoing / personable may only meet 2% of the fellow businesspeople they travel with – and really get to know only 1% (or less!)
  3. On my return flight to SFO, I’d guess that 1 out of every 15 people was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.  If you were a start-up entrepreneur and on that flight, I’d guess that 1 out of every 25 on that plane was a Silicon Valley venture capitalist – or, someone who had funds to invest in your company

And while we’ve all heard stories about the sales deal or business partnership that was sourced by the “person next to me on the plane”, how many other business connections fall by the wayside because two or more individuals never connected?  Lots, I’m sure.  Technology helps flatten the world – but it can also be a further flattener to enable strangers in physical proximity to connect.

We do know that business travelers are quite active on social networks.  There are plenty of business travel blogs out there.  And, users of Facebook and Twitter are quite active while traveling.  They’re constantly chiming in from airports, conferences, hotels and restaurants.  They’ll also tell you whom they’re about to go in to meet with – and how it went.  So we know that busniesspeople are active on social networks during travel – but, how often are they engaging socially in person?

And there’s the irony – social media allows you to connect and socialize globally – but while you’re tweeting from your BlackBerry in the hotel lobby, might you be missing out on an introduction to a potential business partner who’s about to grab a cab to the same place you’re going?  Here’s where localized social media –  targeted at the local business traveler – could be a big win.

Some ideas:

  1. Virtual Flight Lounge, powered by Virgin America RED – when booking your Virgin America reservation online, Virgin asks you to opt in to their Linkedin connector – by opting in and supplying your Linkedin credentials, Virgin is able to capture key data from your Linkedin profile – and, obtain a list of your Linkedin connections.  Once on board, you pull up RED (Virgin’s in-flight entertainment system) and it displays Linkedin connections of your’s who are on the flight.  Additionally, it recommends business partners (with their seat numbers) based on a comparison of your profile against other profiles of passengers who also opted in.  If you’re interested, you can engage in RED’s seat-to-seat chat with your new-found friend.
  2. Marriott Virtual Lobby – when making your Marriott reservation online, you’re prompted to opt in to the hotel’s business networking feature.  You’re asked to provide information to populate a profile, such as what business you’re conducting, what business opportunities are you interested in, what are your food preferences, what are you in the market to purchase, etc.  Once you arrive at the hotel (and connect to the hotel’s paid wireless service, of course), you’re invited into a virtual lobby (similar to a virtual event), where you’re able to see all other guests who have opted in to the service.  You’re able to perform search, view guest profiles and participate in private and group chat (either via text or webcam).

In each scenario, the idea is that two or more potential business partners could discover one another (via their published profiles) – connect virutally and then arrange for the old-fashioned cocktail at the hotel bar or a steak dinner downtown.  That’s right, virtual begets physical.

Why would Virgin or Marriott do this?  The costs are fairly low (and fixed) – and can earn a high and recurring return – that being customer satisfaction and retention, which sure has a high ROI in this economic environment.  And what’s the value to the business traveler in opting in and using such a service?  Well, what’s the value of a new business partner or a new client?  I’m sure it’s much higher than the hard cost (zero) and worth the time and effort.

The concept here is similar to the popular “Who’s Close To Me” service provided by TripIt – but the difference is that here, you’re sourcing brand new business contacts, as opposed to discovering if your existing contacts are nearby.  So if I don’t bump into you in the security check at SFO, perhaps I’ll connect with you virtually and then grab a coffee with you in person.

Real World Meetings In A Virtual Office

February 11, 2009

Amanda Van Nuys, Linden Labs’ Director of Enterprise Marketing (and known in-world as Amanda Linden) has an interesting blog posting titled “Working in the Virtual World“.  Amanda describes her use of Second Life for work-related meetings and collaboration.  A neat physical/virtual tie-in was done with a conference room:

The physical conference room—Isabel—has a virtual counterpart that is an exact replica—Virtual Isabel. A camera in Isabel captures what’s happening in the room and displays it in the virtual space. Simultaneously, the participants in Virtual Isabel are projected on the wall of physical Isabel. The result is a seamless experience—two conference spaces, one real and one virtual, merge into one.

As for Amanda’s use of Second Life for meetings, she describes it as such:

These days, I’m spending at least 2-3 hours a day in Second Life, meeting with my colleagues distributed all over the world—collaborating, brainstorming, learning, and decorating my new office space in LindenWorld.

For companies with a highly distributed workforce, virtual worlds and their associated virtual meeting places can be a win-win scenario. I once met an employee of a Fortune 500 company who noted that he’d never met his manager, nor had he met any member of his entire team — except that he’ “met” them online, in web meetings, conference calls, Skype sessions, etc.

I’m a remote worker – I’m in the Bay Area, while the majority of my company is in the Chicago area.  Fortunately for me, my company provides an internal virtual office platform that serves as an interactive intranet plus meeting and collaboration space.  The virtual office is simply an application that rides on top of same platform that services virtual tradeshows, virtual career fairs and virtual sales meetings.

To be set up for a virtual meeting on our platform, here’s what I do:

  1. Login to the virtual office platform (via the web) – my co-workers and I do this as our first task once the computer boots up
  2. Activate my webcam
  3. Put on earbuds (so that the folks you’re speaking with don’t hear their voices reflect back into their sessions)
  4. Request a meeting with a co-worker within the platform

It’s as simple as that.  I tend to have a few meetings per week in the virtual office, mixed with the more conventional meeting via telephony conference call.  Here are the efficiencies I’ve seen with virtual office meetings:

  1. Lower overhead to start a meeting – since the virtual office provides presence indication, I know when a colleague is logged in.  I can initiate a webcam session with a colleague in the same manner that I’d start up an Instant Messaging session.  Compare this to the typical meeting “set-up”, where emails and Outlook invitations are sent and the meeting organizer awaits replies.
  2. Facilitates ad hoc, spur of the moment collaboration – similar to the gathering at the water cooler – or, the spontaneous brainstorming session around the whiteboard.  But in the virtual office, the spontaneity occurs while you’re still at your desk.  Additionally, requesting a virtual meeting session is very convenient – compare it to walking over to a colleague and tapping her on the shoulder.  Here, your colleague accepts/declines the session with the click of a mouse.  If she’s busy, she goes right back to what she was doing.  It’s like IM’ing a colleague rather than calling her on the phone.
  3. Material related to the meeting is at your fingertips (or a mouse-click away) – my virtual office session is simply a tab in my Firefox browser.  Information I need for a meeting is likely in another browser tab – or, in an application like Excel or Word.  It’s highly convenient to toggle between these apps and have the information I need at my fingertips.
  4. Immediacy – ever attend a face-to-face meeting and  take on an action item to send out a URL to all the meeting participants (when you get back to your desk)? In a virtual meeting, you can find that URL and copy/paste it into your messaging session. Now, your colleague(s) can review the URL in real-time and you can resolve issues (or obtain the necessary feedback) sooner.
  5. True facial expressions – in an avatar-based virtual space, I can emote via gestures or text comments. In a webcam-based virtual meeting, however, my colleagues can read my true facial expression.  The virtual office platform that I use supports multi-user webcam chats (of up to 9 participants), so we can all see one another, as if we all piled into the same conference room.

I haven’t even mentioned the savings in carbon emissions and cost (i.e. the use of IP technologies and the bypass of the telephony network).  I’ll always want to connect with colleagues in person – but, today’s technologies help remote workers get the job done – while increasing efficiency and productivity.  A long day in the (virtual) office never felt so good!

Video Calling: Easier Done Than Said

December 27, 2008

Video calling has gotten to be very easy and convenient.  Chris O’Brien, in a Mercury News article, tells us about his mother’s adoption of Skype for video calls.  I have a similar arrangement, whereby we ring up my East Coast based parents for weekly Skype video calls (we’re on the West Coast).  It’s great to not only hear from family on a regular basis, but to see them as well – smiles, body language, their latest purchase, the kid’s latest art project, etc.  When our parents’ generation can configure and activate a service (like Skype), then it becomes prime time for widescale adoption.

And, technology is going to make it easier and easier.  I see desktop and laptop manufacturers bundling webcams and associated software, so that video calling is ready to go upon initial power-on of a new computer.  When I purchased an Acer Aspire One netbook this month, I noticed (only when opening the box) that it includes a built-in webcam.

With SightSpeed now part of Logitech, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Logitech-powered bundle of video calling capabilities included in some makes of PCs or laptops.  I expect to see increased use of video calling in 2009, primarily at a consumer level.  It will be interesting to see if video calling emerges in the corporate space and whether it becomes useful (or popular) in venues like B-to-B virtual tradeshows.

Gotta go now – the parents are ringing me on Skype.

More Meetings From Your Desk

December 23, 2008

It’s a growing trend.  In 2009, you’ll be attending more and more meetings.  From your desk and desktop, that is.  In a Travel Procurement article titled “The Next Best Thing To Being There: Virtual Meetings Earn Their Rightful Place In Strategic Meetings Management”, surveyed travel buyers confirm that the trend is real:

Faced with an economic downturn and increased airfares, three-quarters of 230 U.S. travel buyers responding to a recent National Business Travel Association poll reported increased use of teleconferencing and Web-based meetings. Nearly 57 percent cited increased use of videoconferencing. More than 80 percent said the technology replaced actual trips.

Consider the travel policy at P&G:

“Our policy is set up so that virtual media must be considered if business objectives can be achieved,” said Diana Johantgen, service manager for Procter & Gamble’s new meeting, event and convention management team, who helped incorporate a virtual meetings program into that company’s strategic meetings management program.

This shift towards virtual meetings means good things for Cisco (Telepresence and WebEx), Nortel and HP (Telepresence), Citrix (GoToMeeting), Microsoft (Live Meeting) and many others.  While virtual meetings and telepresence may never reproduce 100% of in-person meetings, you can’t beat the cost efficiency and convenience.

Additionally, online meetings provide unique benefits, such as the meeting archive.   Ever need to schedule a series of information sessions or training presentations?  Why not do a virtual meeting (live) and record it – take the archive, edit it down (if needed) and then allow all reamining groups to view the session on-demand, on their schedule.  If the presentation is mandatory, the online meeting can be tracked to ensure that all required users end up viewing it.

OK, gotta go now.  A virtual meeting awaits!

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