Applications

Rich-Media Conferencing: Beyond the Conference Call

Network-based multimedia conferencing provides an effective way to collaborate.

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As simple as it may seem today, the idea of assembling several colleagues for a conference call seemed downright progressive just a few years ago. But while there's no denying the benefits of linking people over the phone, audioconferencing as a business tool is at times a little inadequate. You can't see fellow participants, you can't view files collaboratively, and it's difficult to share data. "It offers the tell but not the show," explains Robert Mahowald, a research manager at IDC.

With the emergence of the Internet and the evolution of network-centric business practices, many companies turned immediately to multimedia conferencing; others embraced applications that allowed groups to share documents and collaborate on projects in real time. Now, some companies, including a growing number of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), are combining these capabilities to create virtual meetings and work faster and more effectively.

Rich-media conferencing is a powerful tool that your company can use to achieve effective interactive collaboration. You can invite a specialist or a subject-matter expert to a virtual meeting on short notice, regardless of the person's geographic location. Sales reps can offer more engaging online presentations and demonstrations, complete with video footage and actual demonstrations of the applications or services that they promote. While large enterprises can adopt a full suite of applications, SMBs can take advantage of the specific features that match their needs and budgets.

Making Ends Meet

One of the most compelling features of multimedia conferencing is its ability to help organizations overcome the inherent limitations of online communications, creating an experience that more closely resembles a face-to-face meeting. With multimedia conferencing, meeting participants typically log onto the application through a user-friendly Web interface. Then, they can view the names of the other attendees, identify who is speaking at any given moment, and see the files, presentations, videos, and other materials that other participants have shared via their PCs.

Users can also participate in online chat sessions, which simulate the more informal, ongoing interaction among colleagues that typically occurs in a face-to-face meeting. Specialized tools enable users to edit and annotate files, conduct polls, and solicit feedback on a real-time basis:

For example, the technology makes it possible to:

  • Conduct an online seminar, including a presentation with slides, video clips, and other elements. Users attending remotely can participate more actively than they could with a conference call, since they can watch the speaker's presentation and follow the slides and other exhibits from their own display monitor. Participants can submit questions and, at the moderator's request, read them aloud. This can be an effective way to conduct anything from a sales presentation or human-resources orientation to a companywide meeting.
  • Collaborate with team members across multiple time zones. No longer bound to a conference room in a single city, they can participate from their desktops, hotel rooms, or other remote locations. Participants can share files easily and view documents collectively.
  • View video. For example, a group of doctors might view radiological data or video clips as they confer on the best treatment strategy for a particular patient. Likewise, a geographically dispersed team of attorneys might view a single deposition online without leaving their respective offices.

In addition, network-based multimedia conferencing allows integration with other applications, including Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes,and other applications that many people are already comfortable using.

Improving Business Processes

The resulting changes in business processes can pay significant dividends. For example:

  • Multimedia conferencing can reduce travel expenses and increase productivity by enabling people who would normally travel to meetings to reclaim valuable time that would otherwise be lost in transit and away from their workstations.
  • Because many SMBs cannot afford facilities in different locations, multimedia conferencing can help them coordinate a mobile sales force or create cohesiveness among their leaders, who are often traveling.

Realizing Net Gains

SMBs must balance the cost of multimedia conferencing with its expected return on investment (ROI). Multimedia conferencing applications typically range from about $200 to $300 annually per user to several hundred dollars per month for each system that is connected. Though the costs may seem high, the payoff can be substantial. Many businesses realize their ROI within six months, and a few break even within a few weeks, according to Mahowald.

The conferencing applications continue to evolve. Some enterprise software applications now enable users to right-click on a context-sensitive menu, in Outlook, for example, and launch a Web-conferencing program instantly. Capabilities like this represent the next stage in an evolving collaborative enterprise, according to Mahowald. "When an organization connects its workers in a robust virtual environment, the collaboration that results can provide enormous benefits," he says.

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