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Case study in action: Iceland volcano strands keynote speaker, videoconference comes to the rescue

It’s like clockwork — anytime there’s some weird weather pattern or some other disruptive event, the disaster planning PR kicks into overdrive. Sure enough, my inbox started getting flooded last week about how enterprises can’t wait for the next Eyjafjallajökull (or swine flu or blizzard or flooding) to start beefing up remote access and collaboration spending.

We sort of roll our eyes when we get these, and it looks like you’re doing the same. At a disaster planning session yesterday at Gartner’s Wireless, Networking & Communications Summit 2010 overlooking the marina in gorgeous San Diego — where it’s hard to imagine a disaster — research vice president John Girard pointed out that 76% of enterprises are ready for a power outage, but only 64% ready for a natural disaster.

So, I’ll have to ask you to excuse me while I eat my words in this next observation — three of Gartner’s European analysts were stranded this week in Europe by the Iceland volcano ash cloud, including research VP Steve Prentice, who was scheduled to give today’s keynote entitled, “Are we nearly there? The art of being there when you are not.”

He delivered his argument for enterprises to embrace “immersive virtual environments” via a (ever so slightly jittery) live videoconference — broadcast on a big screen to attendees — supported by a colleague in the room who IM’d him with any questions that popped up live or via Twitter… including mine.

“Technology has broken down the constraints of geography and technology has allowed us to project our presence,” Prentice told the audience. “We tend to take the view that being there is more important [than virtual attendance] …. but any of you who are familiar with teenage children [know] face-to-face communication isn’t always where it needs to be.”

He set up a familiar scenario — presence matters when we have meetings. But what happens to people sitting in meetings? They reach for their smartphone or laptop and start checking email or doing something else other than participating or collaborating.

There’s no one answer for enterprises, Prentice said. In some cases, something like Cisco’s Telepresence might be the solution. For others, it might be appropriate to use an avatar-based virtual reality environment such as Second Life (though I confess I’m still skeptical on this one, but who would’ve thought Facebook would have a business use five years ago?).

The key is not the technology itself, Prentice said. High-def or 3D doesn’t guarantee productivity. It’s understanding user behavior and needs, which is where a unified communications specialist can shine — making sure the next unpronounceable volcano doesn’t shut down your business.

“Don’t necessarily go for the highest technology solution,” Prentice said. “Sometimes simple solutions work best. Technology succeeds when it meets the needs people care about.”

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