Video cuts travel, enhances work-life, builds staff rapport

Local users are benefitting from videoconferencing technology

Ulrika Hedquist talks to three New Zealand organisations about their use of videoconferencing

Unified comms at Beca

Engineering consultancy Beca has had an IP-based video-conferencing solution from Tandberg in place since 2007. Now, the company is also implementing a full unified communications system, Microsoft Lync, and the two systems are integrated, says Beca Group CIO Robin Johansen.

While the IP solution is meeting room-focused, the unified communications solution is focused on individuals.

“When you need to bridge the two, an individual can ‘video in’ to a meeting from their notebook computer, where ever they happen to be”, says Johansen.

It is a great productivity tool, he says. “It means that you can operate from almost anywhere and be connected into a group.” The solution also allows staff to work from home without disrupting workflow.

There were a number of drivers for implementing the IP-based solution, says Johansen. Beca is a geographically dispersed organisation that tends to operate in virtual teams.

“We were finding that telephone conferencing was a bit clunky and not delivering all that well for us. And travel was very expensive.”

There was also a growing concern about sustainability, he says. Beca measures its carbon footprint, so reducing travel was a significant driver.

As well, Beca’s staff in Asia found it difficult to participate in telephone conferencing as for many their first language is not English.

“And secondly, we Kiwis speak quite fast and with an accent. It was very hard for them to understand.”

The addition of the visual component transformed communication, he says.

“They could add another element to what they were hearing. So we got a much better participation. Enabling people to see each other makes a big difference to how they communicate.”

Earthquake pushed unified comms

Lync was pushed into operation during the first Christchurch earthquake, says Johansen. Beca’s office was inside the cordoned-off central area so there was no going back once staff had evacuated the building. The company found itself in a situation where it had to relocate from one to seven offices across Christchurch.

The challenge was now to get telephony to everybody. To add to the test, staff phone lists were not up-to-date, so contacting staff via mobile didn’t always work.

“How do we bridge the gap? The quick way to do it, rather than trying to find PABXs, was to use unified communications,” says Johansen. The team did a rapid roll-out to all its nearly 200 Christchurch staff. The rushed implementation went well, says Johansen, but one lesson learnt is that the quality of headsets is of vital importance.

“When you put a lot of people in a very confined space, if you don’t have good noise cancelling microphones, it’s diabolical. The person at the other end can hear the cacophony of people talking in the background.”

Hard and soft benefits

Beca measures return on investment for the video-conferencing solution solely on reduced travel expenses, says Johansen.

“Based on travel costs alone it paid back very quickly,” he says. “A lot of the other measures are quite hard to put dollars on.”

Travel cost reduced directly by video-conferencing usage is around eight percent, or 16 roundtrips a month. Using video-conferencing also helps Beca reduce its carbon footprint by 58 tonnes per month.

The need to travel less has also led to better work/life balance for many staff members, as they can now spend more time at home with their families, he adds.

Video has also helped build rapport at a personal level, with people meeting each other “face-to-face” instead of talking on the phone or emailing.

Bandwidth challenges

Not surprisingly, Beca’s biggest challenge when it comes to video is bandwidth.

“As we’ve grown our video-conferencing footprint, we are now having to address the network,” says Johansen. “We operate on a VPN-basis and that is not adequate.”

You have got to be able to control the bandwidth available for video-conferencing and telephony, he says. Beca is now in the process of upgrading its network so it can guarantee good quality of service.

Massey University

Massey University was looking for an enterprise-wide solution to provide an interactive environment for teaching and learning purposes, says Mark Brown, director of the teaching, learning and distance education office of the assistant vice chancellor at Massey University.

“In particular, we wanted a web-conferencing solution, as opposed to video-conferencing, which would allow staff and students to interact with one another during online clinics and tutorials,” says Brown.

The solution needed to offer voice, chat and content delivery functionality, including the ability to present Powerpoint slides, he adds.

After reviewing a number of products on the market, Massey University chose an Adobe Connect solution.

“The ability to create breakout rooms for small groups; support back channel discussions using the chat tool and embed quizzes within presentations were just some of the features that helped to make Adobe Connect a potentially rich environment for modern teaching and learning, especially for Massey’s 17,000 distance learners,” says Brown.

Previously, distance learning was mostly done via printed study materials, through online discussion forums and other activities within Moodle (an open-source community based learning tool) says Brown.

Massey staff have been able to integrate Adobe Connect into their teaching and many have developed much closer virtual relationships with their students, he says.

Innovative use

Brown is delighted by the innovative ways Massey staff are using Adobe Connect.

“For example, our library staff use the solution on a daily basis to hold consultations with distance learners and in a similar vein our learning advisors offer online drop-in sessions for students who need support.”

There are some “real champions” who use the advanced features of the solution for regular online tutorials and the students appreciate the ability to record these xxx when they are unable to attend the session, he says.

“We have also offered webinars called ‘Connect Live’ for professional development, which has enabled staff to participate across our three main campuses.”

The biggest challenge is making sure staff understand how to use the system to engage learners in discussion and interaction, rather than as a tool to deliver content, says Brown.

In terms of ROI, students are consistently reporting high levels of satisfaction with the online learning environment, he says. Staff are becoming more adept at using technology and there has been a significant reduction in traditional printed study materials.

Gen-i saved $580,000

Gen-i has gone for a high-end Cisco Telepresence system in a move primarily to reduce the company’s travel budget

“For us the business case was front-loaded, so the benefits were realised day one when we cut our travel budget,” says David Crowne, head of customer engagement solutions at Gen-i.

When implementing the solution two years ago Gen-i mandated a 20 percent reduction in travel budget across the company. Seventy-five percent of this saving was used to fund the initial project, which consisted of four Telepresence rooms in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Sydney, says Crowne.

Gen-i saved around $580,000 on travel within the first three months of deploying Telepresence. For the business case to be a success, the rooms needed an average utilisation of 46 percent. The rooms are currently running between 85-100 percent utilisation, he says.

Two years later, Gen-i has one of the largest investments in Cisco Telepresence in the Southern Hemisphere, with more than 30 rooms across in Australasia, says Crowne.

While the investment was justified by travel savings, other benefits have been achieved.

“The technology allows our people to come together from anywhere across the business,” Crowne says. “It enables quicker decision-making and increases productivity by enabling people to collaborate and share documents in real time, and talk to them face to face.”

Gen-i has also recently implemented an international fibre link that allows for the Telepresence rooms to connect to anywhere in the world. “This equates to a further reduction in global travel costs for the business,” he adds.

The system is also hired out to clients, helping recoup some of the cost.

Work/life balance benefit

While travel-cost reduction was the key driver behind implementing the solution, a key benefit is the ability to quickly get a dispersed group of experts together, says Crowne.

A side benefit to the reduction in travel is also the enhanced work/life balance for staff, he says.

Staff can easily book the rooms through their Outlook Calendar and then initiate the meeting with the press of one button. This is one of the main reasons for the high adoption across the business, says Crowne.

When asked about potential challenges, Crowne says it is important to continue to monitor both bandwidth and travel spend to make sure that costs don’t creep up.

“It makes sense for businesses to consider a communications policy – when to use and why – to ensure communication is performed in the appropriate way,” he says.

View from the analysts

Video-conferencing technology and quality have developed rapidly over the years, while the cost of equipment is coming down, says Dustin Kehoe, programme manager for telecommunications at IDC Australia. The video-conferencing market in Australia and New Zealand is growing at a rate of 20 percent year-on-year, he says.

There have been significant improvements in the ability to push high-definition video and the quality of the codec. Skype is a good example of this development.

Ease-of-use is another trend.

“A lot of vendors are putting in cool graphical user interfaces [featuring] little dashboards with calls, instant messaging and other options,” Kehoe says.

The big boom is most likely to happen in the mid-market, says Kehoe. The high-end telepresence rooms are wonderful, but expensive, he says, costing about A$150,000 per endpoint. That is out of the price range for a lot of New Zealand companies, he suggests.

In the vibrant mid-market, vendors such as LifeSize and Polycom are offering room-based video-conferencing systems in the $10,000 range.

Microsoft is also one to watch for the mid-market, with its Lync platform, which combines video-conferencing, web conferencing, instant messaging, unified communications, presence and email, he believes.

“Over time, they are going to start turning on voice connections, so you get all of your communications to your desktop or mobile device.”

Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype is also likely to stir things up in the mid-market, he says. According to an IDC research note, Microsoft has made a gamble with the US$8.5 billion acquisition of Skype, but the move gives Microsoft the means to compete more aggressively against companies such as Cisco in the unified communications market.

It also opens new opportunities for video-conferencing, says Kehoe. Skype, which has 170 million users, is attractive to small and medium-sized enterprises thanks to its low-cost voice calling, instant messaging, video-conferencing and integration with mobile devices, he says.

The acquisition opens up an opportunity for ad-hoc conferencing, which is complementary to Microsoft Live Meeting, Cisco Webex and other offers.

The acquisition is likely to change the landscape and impact on competitors in the market, says Kehoe. IDC also predicts that the move will help accelerate Windows Phone to the top-three in the smartphone market.

With the recent announcement that Nokia will shift from the Symbian OS to Windows Phone, IDC forecasts the company to take the number-three slot in Australia over the next five years.

“The acquisition of Skype will accelerate this trend, especially if Microsoft is able to natively integrate Skype into the core of the WP OS to deliver tighter integration of instant messaging, presence and advanced features as well as new capabilities such as multiparty video-conferencing,” says Kehoe.

Video fits into the direction of where the whole unified communications market is going, he says.

“It is probably going to go to – I don’t want to sound cliché – but to the cloud, to a hosted virtualised model.”

“Video will integrate with business processes,” he continues. “You’ll see video come into IP contact centres... and integrate with mobility. Something is definitely going to be different about the enterprise of the future.”

Claudio Castelli, senior analyst at Ovum, says the adoption of video solutions has increased over the past few years, with the momentum expected to continue, providing opportunities for service providers, equipment vendors, and systems integrators.

With the life-sized images found in telepresence offerings, superior audio and visual quality, and a strengthening business case built around travel cost and time savings, room-based video-conferencing is the most popular video solution among large enterprises, says Castelli.

These solutions are also playing a key role in increasing awareness about the benefits of video collaboration, which is now expected to spread across the enterprise through more economical, low-end, PC-based solutions, he says.

“Not surprisingly, desktop video is expected to show the greatest growth, with 21 percent of [Ovum] survey respondents expecting to deploy it in the coming year.”

With an increasing maturity of video conferencing, large enterprises are starting to look at benefits beyond savings on travel costs, says Castelli.

“The vast majority of companies consider improved staff productivity and more effective use of management time as important factors to justify investments in HD video conferencing.”

More than in other developed regions, companies in Australia and New Zealand realise the importance of increased customer contact when deploying HD video conferencing solutions, he says.

“We think the potential for this is enormous. Deploying video for [business to consumer] communication can add new capabilities and help enterprises distribute their workforce by concentrating their services staff in places, where certain skills are more available and cost less.

“In addition, an investment in serving customers is normally better perceived by executives signing off IT purchases.”

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