The Exponential Power of Video Conferencing

I stumbled across an old HBR article the other day called Introducing the Collaboration Curve. Despite the World of Warcraft analogies, it raised a few very interesting points that not only relate to video conferencing but to the value of collaboration itself.

The first point the authors discuss is the “network effect” which states the value of a node in a network rises exponentially as more nodes are added to it. Essentially, “the more participants –and interactions between those participants – you add to a carefully designed and nurtured environment, the more the rate of performance improvement goes up.”

This makes sense for video conferencing solutions. What value does video really have if you can’t connect to anyone of relevance? Twenty years ago only executives of large corporations had video conferencing solutions and the technology was generally only used for high-level strategy meetings. Even if a business partner had video, differences in platforms, firewalls and network exchanges most likely prevented a successful connection.

However, new trends in interoperability and cloud video services are allowing participants to connect via video anytime, anywhere, on any device. As a result, more and more organizations are adopting video solutions and the value of video communications has been increasing exponentially. Almost every call I have with a colleague or partner is over video nowadays, granted I work at a video company, but it’s just as easy, if not easier than picking up the telephone. All I have to do is type in a name and click a button; there’s no hassle of looking up and then dialing a phone number.

But how does the network effect relate to collaboration?

This is the true insight of the article. The collaboration curve, or the network effect on collaboration, holds “the potential to mobilize larger and more diverse groups of participants to innovate and create new value.”

But what exactly does that mean?

If an organization gives one person the opportunity and tools to collaborate, the likelihood of a breakthrough idea is minimal because this person doesn’t have anyone else to connect to. However, give two people the opportunity and tools to collaborate; they can connect with each other, brainstorm, and the likelihood of a breakthrough idea increases. As more and more people within an organization are given the opportunity and tools to collaborate, a larger and more diverse group of participants is created and the likelihood of a breakthrough idea has increased exponentially.

This is social collaboration at its core – casual interactions among colleagues, business partners and even customers that enable creativity and drive innovation. Unified communications and video conferencing solutions connect geographically disperse employees; expanding the reach of collaboration beyond a single location.

The perpetual wondering of what your colleague looks like no longer crosses your mind because you are able to see them over video. A relationship develops from the casual face-to-face chat at the beginning of a meeting because it’s kind of hard to hide behind the mute button and finish up an email while waiting for everyone to join the call.

The value of the collaboration curve lies here; when colleagues and business partners with different backgrounds or areas of expertise are connected effortlessly. Ideas are bounced back and forth for a second opinion from an impartial third-party and value is created through new products or processes that can revolutionize a company or even develop a new market.

AV Innovation: A Bridgeless Video Bridge

Video conferencing solutions are quickly replacing the frequent high-level meetings that are standard in most organizations. Executive teams typically meet with the managers of different business units or locations to discuss business strategy, profitability and other key deliverables. However, many times these managers are scattered across the globe making frequent in-person meetings costly and time consuming. While video is great for meetings with two to three sites it can be difficult to hold a group meeting with several worldwide sites over a video bridge.

In many instances, the active speaker view limits the continuous presence of the remote sites. When the CEO speaks he cannot gauge the reaction of the site he is addressing until they speak and the view shifts. Even more frustrating is when a member of the Executive team is speaking but the view keeps shifting between sites where participants are rustling papers or murmuring agreements. Despite all of the audio visual components, these meetings just don’t provide the same experience of having the meeting in-person at headquarters.

A global Real Estate firm faced similar challenges and wanted a solution that simulated their quarterly management meetings; from eye contact to speaker priority. They wanted the ability to customize the way remote sites were displayed in continuous presence views plus a concurrent view of the active speaker. Additionally, they wanted to give the CEO and other Executives speaker priority; whenever they spoke the active speaker would switch to them regardless of whichever site may be speaking.

Since a standard video bridge did not provide the flexible windowing capabilities, the ability to place sites in a specific location on screen, our engineering team created a bridgeless video bridge.

With the help of three displays, three Cisco C90s, an array of audio visual equipment and a lot of programming; a new Executive Boardroom was created. The left and right displays featured continuous presence of each site, unless content was being displayed, while the center display switched with the active speaker. Additional programming gave headquarters speaker priority; anytime the CEO spoke the active speaker would automatically revert back to him.

Since most of the remote sites did not have three displays, the continuous and active presence capabilities needed to be condensed into one video feed. A little extra programming created the layout below. This allowed remote sites to continuously and easily view the headquarters location while still having a larger view of the active speaker and the presence of all sites.

Watch the video below for a quick demonstration on how this amazing technology works!

Embrace Conflict for High Performance Teams

Conflict is a part of everyday life; whether it’s someone cutting you in line at Starbucks, an argument with your spouse about what to eat for dinner, or a disagreement with a co-worker about how to prepare for a zombie attack. In these instances, the conflict isn’t really that big of problem. But, what about disagreements over pricing for a new product or departmental funding? These situations can have major ramifications among team members and some organizations will try to avoid conflict at all costs. But is that healthy? Should conflict be eliminated?

In many cases the answer is no, opposing opinions and ideas are crucial to the success of an organization. Continually questioning what is right allows organizations to stay ahead of trends and adapt to market changes. In fact, in his recent HBR blog article Mark de Rond states that “rivalry within a team helps weed out inefficiencies and – however uncomfortable it may feel at times – also keeps people at the top of their game.”

If Isaac Newton had not questioned gravity or Steve Jobs not questioned the use for a personal computer where would we be today? The highest performing teams are usually composed of a diverse group of people; different backgrounds, different specialties, different ways of thinking. With so many differences, conflict is bound to happen. The difference between a high-performance team and a low-performance team is how the conflict is handled.

According to Donald Brown in An Experiential Approach to Organizational Development there are five different ways to deal with conflict. These are based on two dimensions; the desire to satisfy others and the desire to satisfy self.

  • Avoiding: people who have a low desire to satisfy themselves and others and are passive aggressive or draw away from conflict.
  • Obliging: people who like to satisfy others and smooth over conflict despite their opposing views.
  • Dominating: people who care more about their personal objectives and ignore the needs of others.
  • Compromising: people who seek out a compromise between all parties leaving everyone only partially satisfied.
  • Integrating: people who seek to examine differences in opinion by sharing information to reach a consensus or win-win situation.

Teams that consist of mainly avoiding, obliging or dominating members will typically have a lower performance because one or two people will dominate the ideas within a group. Important points may be overlooked because members who like to avoid conflict or smooth things over are afraid to upset the harmony of the group.

On the other hand, teams that consist of members who approach conflict with an open mind are more likely to come up with a well-rounded and sustainable solution. Potential holes or flaws are openly discussed and the solution is adapted to address many of these points.

Constantly challenging one another forces everyone to stay at the top of their game. Team members will research and educate themselves more before putting forth an idea in order to answer the team’s constructive criticism. More importantly, if everyone is working towards a common goal, that zombie attack will be a lot easier to fend off at the end of the day. For example, Kim’s idea of commandeering an Army tank sounds great, but when you run out of ammunition and the gas tank is empty, you will be glad that Barry insisted on also bringing a samurai sword.

Audio Feedback vs. Echo – What’s the Difference?

There it is again, that unbelievably annoying high pitched sound. What is it? One person says it’s an echo, another person says it’s a reverberation and yet someone else is saying it’s feedback. All I know is it’s driving me absolutely crazy and somebody just needs to make it stop!

If you video conference on a regular basis, chances are you’ve been in a similar situation. People are throwing around different terms left and right then arguing over whose side is at fault. With all of this going on it can be difficult to determine exactly what the problem is let alone how to fix it.

Here’s a quick overview to help distinguish between echo, reverberation and feedback along with some tips to help reduce each one.

Echo, also known as reverberation, is almost always a problem on the far end of a video conference and is the result of a reflection of sound. When a participant speaks into a microphone, the audio gets transmitted to the other side through their speakers. Then, their microphone picks up the audio and sends it back to the speakers in the local room. Participants in the local room hear what was just said again since the speakers on the far end are not cancelling out the audio properly.

To minimize reverberations, an echo canceller or acoustical ceiling tiles can be installed. Additionally, minor adjustments to the type and placement of room furniture along with the installation of shades or a heavy rug can help improve acoustics in the room.

Audio feedback, on the other hand, is almost always an issue with the local room. It occurs when a sound loop exists between an audio input (microphone) and an audio output (speaker). Essentially, when a participant speaks the audio passes through a microphone to the speakers and gets amplified. The process continues to repeat as the microphone picks up the noise, amplifies it further, and passes it through the speaker. Eventually a sound, ranging from a low pitch to an extremely high pitch, is emitted which can disrupt the conference in addition to be extremely annoying.

To minimize feedback, microphones and speakers should be spaced appropriately and positioned so the speaker output isn’t feeding directly into the microphone. Additionally a digital feedback eliminator or noise filter can be installed to reduce feedback.

Audio quality plays a significant role in the video conferencing experience and should not be taken lightly. Poor audio can detract from the effectiveness of the meeting as participants are focused more on trying to hear speakers and tune out background noises than on the topics being discussed.

Related Articles:
Can You Hear Me Now?
Top 5 Conference Room Considerations

Sound Masking Your Way to Medicare Reimbursement

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid now base a portion of hospital reimbursement on how well a hospital performs along with clinical and patient satisfaction measures. The Hospital Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) Program metrics are based on metrics from Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) metrics which are publicly available. In order to receive full Medicare funding, hospitals need to score in at least the 50th percentile in patient satisfaction scores.

One key area is ensuring the area around patient rooms is always quite at night which is challenge for most hospitals. Doctors and nurses who are constantly milling around, responding to calls or checking in on patients can easily disrupt neighboring patients at night. Not only is a lack of sleep frustrating for patients, it can actually prolong recuperation. According to Niklas Moeller, studies have shown that sleep deprivation can “weaken the immune system, impede the body’s ability to generate new cells, and decrease pain tolerance – all of which can lengthen hospital stays.”

So how do hospitals reduce noise in patient rooms and, more importantly, in the Emergency Room and Intensive Care Unit? Forbidding doctors and nurses to talk during “quiet hours” is out of the question and noise-cancelling headphones are uncomfortable to sleep in plus present additional sanitary concerns.

Enter speech privacy, also known as sound masking, solutions for healthcare environments.

Essentially, a background noise similar to airflow is disseminated through ceiling mounted speakers which drowns out human speech and other distracting noises. So, when a patient has a revolving door of visitors; neighbors can easily relax, watch television or read without continued distractions. When a patient is screaming for the nurse, the nurse is paging the doctor and the doctor is running down the hall; neighbors can continue their restful sleep instead of being rudely awoken.

Day or night, the soothing noise allows patients to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer due to a quieter environment increasing patient recovery and hospital efficiency in addition to the VBP program benefits.  Additionally, speech privacy solutions also help doctors and nurses maintain patient confidentiality by masking their conversations from other patients.

We are nosy by nature and patients are curious as to what landed their neighboring counterparts in the hospital. Sometimes it’s casually overhearing the doctor speak in the hallway, other times it’s pressing an ear against the wall to hear what’s going on. Speech privacy solutions mask the intelligibility of speech so even the nosiest patient can’t distinguish exactly what is being said – unless of course they creep into the room and hide under the bed but that seems highly unlikely.

Additional Articles & Resources:
Sound Masking Solutions 
Telemedicine Reimbursement - The Time is Now!

Stop Being a Video-phobe Part Deux

Video has become a staple in both my professional and personal lives. I find it so much easier to have a conversation face-to-face and simply get annoyed when I have to pick up the phone. Unfortunately, I still meet a lot of people who just don’t seem to love video as much as I do. We’ve already discussed a few excuses in a previous post; including people can spy on me, I cannot multitask and video is creepy. Here are a few more of my favorites:

Video is too difficult to use
Half of the time I can hear the other person but not see them and the other half I can see them but not hear them. That’s assuming I connect of course which is maybe only about quarter of the time. On the off chance that I can connect smoothly, the video image keeps breaking up and I can barely hear my colleague let alone see them. Yes, we’ve all heard the woes of unfamiliar video users and if video equipment and networks are not set up properly these inconveniences are probably true.

However, in most instances video is as easy to use as the telephone. UC solutions such as Microsoft Lync and Cisco Jabber make video conferencing as easy as typing in a name and clicking connect. There is no need to look up or remember a phone number, let alone an IP address. Similarly, cloud based bridging services not only remove most interoperability barriers but allow enterprise video solutions to connect with consumer desktop and mobile solutions such as Skype and iPads.

I sit in a public area and have little privacy
Conversations over video can be quite public if you are using computer speakers. Not only can people hear what you’re saying, they can hear what your counterpart is saying removing every ounce of privacy. Not to mention we all have that one coworker who’s a little loud or a little nosy and can be rather distracting when on a video call.

Try substituting a headset or pair of headphones for your computer speakers. Not only will this keep the conversation slightly more private, it will reduce some of the background noise allowing your colleague to hear you better.

I don’t like the way I look on camera
I look too fat, too pale, too old, too young for that matter – the list goes on and on. Newsflash: no one likes the way they look on camera because we are overly critical of ourselves. I mean everyone hates how they sound over audio but that doesn’t keep them from making telephone calls does it? So why then does it keep them from video conferencing?

Besides, there are few little things you can do to enhance your appearance – starting with the position of the camera. Make sure it is not right in front of you or zoomed up all the way; the closer the camera is, the bigger your face looks. You don’t need to prepare for the nightly news but a little foundation and bronzer goes a long way. Finally, make sure the area around you is tidy, although if you want people looking at your mess rather than your face, this is the way to go.

Getting over the hurdle of being afraid or making excuses not to be on video can be challenging. But do it, because in the end the advantages of using it far outweigh any negative feelings you may have!

Related Articles
Stop Being A Video-Phobe Part One

Can You Hear Me Now?

There are several different components that go into designing an optimal collaboration space: displays, video switching, control system, lighting, the list goes on. But what about the acoustics, how do you ensure both local and remote participants can hear each other clearly?  Believe it or not, there are actually several factors that affect the sound quality in a room.

Speaker and Microphone Placement:
Room design and they way participants actually use the space must be considered when designing audio pickup and coverage in a room. The style of meetings, along with furniture placement (tables/chairs/displays/etc.), allows a design engineer to determine the best type of microphone and final microphone placement. Most audio visual rooms now perform multiple roles; a single room can be used as boardroom in the morning, then a training room with remote participants in the afternoon. Therefore, microphones may be placed in the ceiling with a wireless lapel and handheld support. This allows multiple room configurations while keeping the technology in the background; allowing the meeting in each scenario to take precedence. Additionally, the speakers selected should allow for full and even coverage of the space; supporting audio from participants, DVDs or PCs.

Room Acoustics:
The acoustics of a room are determined by the room environment; such as room size and shape, ceiling height, surface materials (wall/floor/ceiling) and participant seating locations. The microphones, speakers and screen surfaces may also add a positive or negative acoustical impact into the room. Additionally, noise generated from an HVAC system must be taken into consideration when designing a collaboration room. A noise diffuser can be used to minimize air handler noise in the room.

Reverberation:
Sound reflections can be attributed to the shape of the space, as well as, surfaces located in the room. Hard surfaces, such as paneling, concrete, doors and whiteboards can reflect sounds creating echo and secondary audio throughout the room. Small adjustments to room shape or absorptive surface treatments placed in strategic locations, along with an echo-canceller, can help eliminate reverberation and reflection issues in some of the more difficult spaces.

Windows and Doors:
Background noise can be extremely distracting to both remote and local participants. Selecting windows and doors that minimize outside sounds can help keep participants focused and ensure clear audio is delivered to remote participants. Wall and ceiling structure should also be considered during construction, this will ensue that the meeting stays in the room and does not “leak” in to the next meeting room or the hallway. Additional ceiling insulation, double walls, or specific sound absorbing material can be installed for corporate privacy or high noise areas.

Learn more about creating an optimal collaboration environment from our Audio Visual Buyers Guide.

Related Articles:
Let There Be Light
Top 5 Conference Room Considerations

Norm Goes to Japan

Guess what? We finally closed the Japanese bank deal! It’s been a bumpy ride the past few months but on the bright side I’ve learned how to distinguish between about sixteen different types of hmmms.

Let me back up a little.

Prior to my first meeting with the bank’s executive team I sat down with my sales manager Tom to discuss our strategy. He explained that business was conducted differently in Eastern cultures than it was in Western cultures. In the first meeting, the initial focus is on establishing a relationship by understanding each other’s needs rather than simply discussing different products and services.

He also told me that when we exchanged business cards to make sure I took each business card with two hands and looked at it for a couple seconds before putting it away. Simply taking it and putting it away is considered disrespectful.

I felt pretty confident going into the first meeting but left feeling extremely frustrated because we barely got anything accomplished and I was sure they were not interested. But a few days later they set up an additional meeting so I guess they were.

Anyway, at one point during the second meeting, the CEO asked if our software could perform a specific function. I was getting ready to say no when Tom interjected saying that it would be very difficult but he would look into it. The rest of the meeting went this way and I was so confused. Every time a question was asked, the answer was either that is something we can accommodate or that will be very difficult.

What happened to a simple yes or no?

After the meeting, I asked Tom what was going on and he shed some light on the situation. Apparently, Japan is a very high context culture; answers are situational instead of explicit. Saving face in front of peers is extremely important and the word “no” is almost never used. It is better to use phrases like that will be difficult or we will have to think about it. Basically, how things were said was more important than what was said so I needed to pay more attention to how they were saying things.

It took a few more meetings but I finally was able to distinguish when my points were received favorably, when they were not interested (fyi “we’re considering it” means we’re not so move on), and when they simply needed a few moments for personal reflection. It was completely exhausting but we were finally able to tailor our offering to their needs and close the deal!

Using Collaboration to Increase Customer Lifetime Value

Social collaboration, a combination of social media, visual collaboration and unified communications, is becoming a significant trend in business today. When used together, these technologies can improve products or processes and ultimately drive true innovation which has a direct impact on a firm’s bottom line. This is the final post in a series discussing the benefits of social collaboration. For part one click here.

Customer needs are changing faster than the weather these days and companies have to find new ways to adapt; otherwise they will simply fade away. Pushing products or services upon customers, à la advertising or herded cattle, is no longer an effective business model. Technological innovations have changed the way consumers think, act and shop; however, they have also made it easier for companies to develop relationships with their customers.

Why should companies care about developing relationships?

Three words: customer lifetime value. The stronger the relationship a customer has with a brand the higher their loyalty, their retention and ultimately their sales. Having conversations with customers over social media and listening to their thoughts, opinions and ideas can help form a solid foundation for a relationship. Similarly, utilizing video technologies for customer service or technical support can help establish trust with consumers as video almost humanizes the company in customer eyes.

Furthermore, strong customer relationships can help drive innovation. The more companies converse with customers and the stronger the relationship is; the more apt customers are to provide honest feedback. This not only helps companies fix product flaws but allows them to stay in tune with market needs and opportunities.

Companies can collaborate with customers to create products and services that are perfectly aligned with market needs. Product development cycles can be sped up through beta versions of a product where customers provide feedback on their likes and dislikes and offer suggestions on how to make the product better. According to Nilofer Merchant in the HBR article Rules for the Social Era, “the social object that most unites people is a shared value or purpose.”

A shared value or purpose can be creating or modifying a product to satisfy a market need. People love to be the first to try something new; even more, they love giving feedback so they can say they helped create a product.  Unified communications solutions have given a new meaning to the word focus group; companies can easily set up forums for customers to give their thoughts on beta versions. This is far more cost effective, and provides better results, than hiring a few engineers and product development specialists to test all aspects of a product before mass-marketing it.

Collaboration with customers allows companies to stay agile and ahead of new trends. It helps ensure they are meeting customer needs by constantly making improvements or trying new ideas to create new niche markets. Collaboration helps companies stay relevant which really is the key to staying in the forefront of customers’ minds.

This post is part of a series covering the benefits of social collaboration within an organization.

Part One: The Rise of Social Collaboration
Part Two: Unified Communications, Unified People
Part Three: The Power of Business Partnerships

Knocking Down the Walls of Collaboration

In most organizations, highly interactive working sessions not only occur but are considered crucial to the business. Unfortunately, many times subject matter experts and other team members are located different offices. While video conferencing helps, it doesn’t quite offer the level of interactivity needed for high-pressure situations or critical projects.

Picture this: it’s almost 7:30 pm in New York and the Tokyo stock exchange is set to open in about a half an hour; but first, there’s a quick strategy meeting with the Japanese office. There’s a long list of trades that need to happen plus the futures market is looking a little shaky and needs to be discussed.

Everyone takes their seats around the center table while the call automatically connects with Japan. A document with the trades is displayed on the whiteboard and participants located in New York and Japan are making changes back and forth.

When the market finally opens; real-time ticker data is projected on the screen to the right while trade data is being noted on the whiteboard to the left. Carl is slightly stressed out and is pacing around the room watching the ticker and listening to what everyone else is saying.

How is that even possible?

Well, start with a Cisco CTS 1300. Then add a large, interactive SmartBoard and integrate it with Cisco WebEx. Throw in a projector and second display screen for good measure and don’t forget to replace the standard conference table with a few café-height tables.

The end result: An Active Collaboration Room.

This true technology mash-up provides a collaboration experience like none other. Participants are no longer confined to a chair; they can move around as needed, enhancing creativity, inspiration and innovation. Remote participants can share, annotate and create documents as if they were in person; expanding teams to include the best and brightest individuals within an organization. Complex projects are completed faster with improved quality and reduced errors driving efficiency throughout the organization.

The benefits are endless and the collaboration seamless; innovation knows no bounds with a Cisco Active Collaboration Room.

Additional Resources:
Cisco IBSG Whitepaper: Transforming Business Models by Accelerating Distributed Team Performance
Brochure: Active Collaboration Room