In a world where Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) continues to make its mark in the boardroom, companies are looking for ways in which carbon footprints can be reduced, and employees' time can be used more efficiently and productively. Conferencing technology is seen as one way of achieving this. Meetings can be set up within minutes, even if the people involved are spread across the world. But how can costs be kept under control? Aaron McCormack looks at some of the options
Conferencing has taken huge steps forward in recent years. Calls are much easier and quicker to organise, for example. For a formal meeting, you may still want to plan ahead but if you want to gather a few people together for a quick impromptu discussion, that's just as easy. A growing number of people maintain virtual ‘meeting rooms' they can dial into whenever they like.
Conferencing has become a much richer experience as well. Using tools such as Microsoft Live Meeting with an audio conference, people can see and work on documents while they speak, as if gathered around one PC. You can use these conferencing services to make presentations as well. As you talk, your audience can see your slides or your product demonstration on their screen.
And if you still think these services are a poor substitute for actually being there, the next generation of video conferencing services made possible by equipment from Cisco and other suppliers should change your mind. By placing large screens and cameras carefully around a meeting table, they make it possible to look people in the eye. Facial expressions and gestures are as clearly visible as if participants were in the same room.
No wonder, then, that more and more people are adopting conferencing as a time- and money-saving alternative to face-to-face meetings.
Gartner has described conferencing as a ‘birthright' application for high-performance workplaces and it's easy to see why. Thanks to globalisation, partners, suppliers and colleagues can be spread across the world. But despite their distance, you need a close and effective working relationship with everyone in your circle. Yes - it's good to visit them from time to time. In between, though, you need an effective and efficient alternative - something more personal and interactive than email.
Conferencing is also good for the bottom line. Time that would have been spent travelling can be put to better use, and conference calls are much cheaper than plane tickets - even if you travel on budget airlines!
The problem for many companies, though, is that the costs of travel and conferencing fall in different areas or budgets. While one manager smiles at the savings, another winces as phone bills escalate, apparently out of control.
Fortunately, there is a win-win solution. Those who have already completed the introduction of IP telephony across their organisation and have connected their various premises through IP VPNs have the most to gain.
As with any distributed organisation, a great many phone calls - often, the majority - are internal. This is particularly true of conferencing. Up to 20 per cent of minutes carried on an enterprise's phone network can result from audio conferences. And 50 to 60 per cent of conference calls are between people from the same enterprise.
The cost of connecting these people through public phone networks can account for 30 or 40 per cent of the total cost of a conference call. If employees are located in different countries, for example, some may need to make expensive international calls to connect to the conference. Where mobile phones are used, the costs can be even higher.
However, if organisations use their IP VPNs to connect everyone, much of this cost can be saved. By adding a managed conferencing service to their corporate network, the majority of calls can be brought ‘on net'. Savings of 20 per cent or more can be achieved as a result. Even better as far as cost management is concerned is that the variable cost of calls to public conferencing services is replaced by the fixed cost of providing enough network capacity to handle the additional calls.
Of course, while complete convergence is the ideal, most organisations have yet to reach it.
Surveys suggest that the 80:20 rule applies. While 80 per cent of organisations have started to introduce IP telephony, only 20 per cent have completed deployment. The remainder still operate a mix of old and new telephony systems across their facilities.
It's a situation that can persist for many years. New offices might be equipped with IP telephony, for example, while outlying branches continue to use their traditional PBX solutions.
So what can you do to gain control of conferencing costs in the meantime?
One option is to select a single global supplier for conferencing services, which can help remove the need to make expensive international phone calls.
Imagine someone in New York wants to arrange a conference involving colleagues in Europe and Japan. If the call is set up through a US-based supplier, those joining from other countries will have to make international calls to join it. If the call is arranged through a global supplier, everyone will be able to connect by calling a number in their own country. Costs are reduced considerably as a result.
Another option is for organisations to choose a global supplier's hosted conferencing service. In most respects, this is the same as choosing an on-net managed solution. There is one important difference, though - the conferencing platform is located on the supplier's premises and connected to the enterprise's IP telephony systems through VPNs. Calls from employees using the IP telephony systems are effectively ‘on net'. Everyone else connects in by dialling the local access number for their country, with their calls being connected to the conferencing platform through the supplier's global network. These solutions leverage the enterprise's network investment and create a highly cost-effective service.Whichever option you choose, there is one more thing you need to do to maximise the benefit your organisation gains from conferencing - embed it in your company's culture.
If you've invested in a managed or hosted conferencing service, it makes sense to get as much use from it as you can. Additional calls make little difference to the cost of providing the service, but can reduce travel bills and improve employee productivity.
The chances are you'll have little difficulty in convincing 10 to 15 per cent of your staff to use the service. They'll be your early adopters - the people who are keen to try something new and have probably been using conferencing for some time.
The main issue is in convincing the rest of your organisation and changing their behaviour. Unless someone is telling people why it is beneficial to change, showing them how to do it, training them in the technology and monitoring their usage, it won't happen.
The problem comes from the fact that companies rarely have any experience to build on when they begin to introduce their conferencing solutions and drive up adoption. They're doing it for the first time and may never need to do it again. The results they achieve suffer as a result.
Where a supplier can make a big difference is by bringing a wealth of practical experience and understanding to the table. Over the years, they will come across almost every situation and will know how best to address it. They'll also have ‘out of the box' CRM tools and information systems to provide effective support and a range of ‘tried and tested' training and communication programmes. Armed with this, they can help enterprises introduce conferencing cultures quickly and painlessly, bringing forward return on
Because they've done it many times before, global conferencing service providers are good at these sorts of education programme. They know what will get people's attention and how to get the message across. As a result, they can change an organisation's culture from face-to-face to conferencing much more quickly than might otherwise be possible.
And with the continual pressure on organisations to reduce costs and improve efficiency that has to be a good thing.
Aaron McCormack is CEO, BT Conferencing