Ever since consumer video cameras became available, video calling seemed to be just around the corner, promising easy integration of video and traditional telephony. On the business side, given the prevalence of meetings and the cost of assembling a group in one place, enterprises have had just as pervasive an expectation that video collaboration and conferencing will replace in-person, face-to-face communication, as well as the familiar "I'm on slide three" telephone presentation coordination.
A variety of video collaboration products have been available for years now, and Internet video services continue to enable video collaboration at the departmental level. As a result, video traffic growth on the enterprise WAN is considerable, yet the benefits of video collaboration may or may not justify the cost.
It's important to understand the value of video and determine and weigh it against the cost, because even "free" video tools use network capacity. Any policy on video collaboration begins with an analysis of video's impact on productivity. Plenty of research exists on the topic of video productivity gains, but trends suggest some of that research is out of date.
Visuals dominate the human sense of information exchange, which is illustrated by the verbs demonstrate and show, both of which mean to make visible. People gather information more quickly when they have visual clues. Therefore it is more efficient to demonstrate something by "showing" than by only talking about it.
The value of verbal vs. visual collaboration
If the visual vs. audio choice in collaboration were really that simple, there would be no debate. The challenge is that most collaboration is based on a cooperative assessment of material that is easily duplicated in multiple locations -- presentations, documents, screens and even whiteboards. The real question is whether verbal coordination of a shared visual context created by sending documents is effective.
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Most companies realize that it all comes down to the notion of face to face. People engage in cooperative activities routinely, reading the body language of others, and ultimately influencing the way people relate. When a group is sharing a view of a document, what they can't share is a view of each other. Therefore, they lose critical clues about what the other participants are thinking and how their own message is getting across.
Research offers clues about optimal video collaboration
Academia offers us some guidance. Research into the general field of technology-based collaboration (called computer-supported cooperative work, or CSCW) is long standing. (It existed even before the term was coined in the mid-1980s.) Studies combine to suggest that the value of video collaboration is very low when it comes to two-party cooperative activities. Video collaboration is at its most optimal for five to eight participants. With more than that, its value starts to decline again at a variety of rates. The curve suggests that in small groups, audio clues are sufficient, but for larger groups, size prevents attention to body language. This explains why most companies report that video calling hasn't been especially helpful in improving productivity.
Studies also suggest that as group size increases, a variety of interpersonal dynamics could emerge, each of which require some specific video features to optimize. For example, some people watch the boss, while some watch the speaker and some watch the person most likely to rebut a point. Where multi-screen conferences can include more than two people, deciding how to focus attention on the "right" person creates complications. This possibly explains why the "best" video collaboration strategies seem to be video systems linking conference rooms. In this setting, any who-to-watch preference is supported.
Setting video policy management -- measuring user experience
All of this explains a lot about the history of video collaboration, but it doesn't address future issues. Workers who grew up with video are likely to be more dependent on it than workers who aren't likely to use Internet video calling even if it is free. Companies also report that meetings have evolved from orderly one-to-many presentations to more free-flowing group exchanges, which make it increasingly difficult to know who is talking, even on a three-party call.
Survey data suggests that enterprises that allow controlled video experimentation using Internet video tools often make better video decisions down the road.
Recent enterprise surveys suggest that the value of video increases at a rapid rate beyond two parties and remains relatively constant for groups of 12 to 15, then value drops off sharply.
Video collaboration based on telepresence products of any kind offer an advantage in video policy management, making it an important tool in the struggle to limit network traffic growth. These controls don't exist for Internet conference tools like Google+ or Skype, and some enterprises have already put policy limits on video call and conference use because productivity gains don't justify the increase in traffic.
Most companies will likely begin exploring video collaboration by testing Internet video services and tools in uncontrolled experiments. Some companies see this as a threat and have tried to eliminate the practice. But that may be doing away with a potentially critical asset in setting a video policy -- experience. Survey data suggests that enterprises that allow controlled video experimentation using Internet video tools often make better video decisions down the road.
A proactive stance on video should be put in place. If employees use it for business, they should be required to report on their experience. It's also helpful to monitor the use of Internet video to determine whether any part of the organization is using video heavily and neglecting to report on their experiences.
Business cases for video should consequently be subject to an audit to check the applications against the research cited above, as well as to explore special benefits that might have been uncovered. When video is simply a convenience (or worse, a distraction), policies against its use can be put in place.
Where real gains in productivity can be attributed to video, it would be beneficial to launch a project to determine the best video product or service to secure the documented benefits. In some cases, the best solution may be online video services. In other cases, the solutions will range from commercial video-conference products to large-scale telepresence systems. The process of setting policies for video use may end up reducing video collaboration because it's not valuable, but it can also lead to making well-informed video purchase decisions. When decisions are based on an analysis of in-house video usage, they are far more likely to be the right ones for the long term.
About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecom and data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced telecom strategy issues.