Getting videoconferencing right

Videoconferencing has gone mobile. Anyone who has seen the recent iPhone commercials can attest that you no longer need "an app for that" – it's built in. But while individual consumers now have videoconferencing at their fingertips, many small and midsize businesses (SMBs) are still relying on different modes of communication.

Videoconferencing has gone mobile. Anyone who has seen the recent iPhone commercials can attest that you no longer need "an app for that" -- it's built in. But while individual consumers now have videoconferencing at their fingertips, many small and midsize businesses (SMBs) are still relying on different modes of communication.

Primary modes of communication – instant messages, e-mails, phone calls and in-person meetings -- all have their appropriate place in the mix. Yet, in some cases, IMs are blunt, e-mails seem stodgy and phone calls become rushed.

Is your network ready for HD videoconferencing?

Enter videoconferencing. Unlike the other solutions, videoconferencing allows for face-to-face meetings without the cost or hassle of travel. Additionally, a successful videoconferencing system can alleviate more than travel pressures -- it can also reduce operating costs and provide opportunities for distance/remote training, all while improving the quality of interactions.

Making the move to videoconferencing can be daunting, and SMBs discussing adoption should consider the following:

Choose a system: The types of videoconferencing systems run the gamut from immersive telepresence systems to PC-based applications, all with varying costs and benefits. Determining the best fit requires a clear understanding of the organizational stakeholders' expectations and the business drivers behind implementing the solution.

If the intended use is for executive-to-executive communication, high video quality will likely be preferable. If, however, a business is using the system for "many-to-many" video collaboration, with multiple users in separate locations, then the standard definition solution may be the most logical choice.

The choice of a videoconferencing system also depends upon the size of both the room and audience as well as the experience level of the user. For a large conference room, ensure that the system has pan/tilt/zoom capability and that it can support multiple displays and microphones. If the system has multiple endpoints, it is important to consider a conference management application with video bridges, as well as video recording/streaming and firewall traversal.

Organizational buy-in

Videoconferencing can increase network load significantly, requiring the highest level of priority and affecting the quality of service (QoS) for other applications. Before embarking on a large-scale videoconferencing deployment, complete a network assessment to ensure the network is robust enough and has QoS enabled to prioritize traffic properly. While a full assessment is not required when adding videoconferencing capabilities, it is highly recommended.

Demonstrating high value and a return on investment (ROI) often fast-tracks a business project and changes to IT systems are no different. To gain executive acceptance, SMBs must clearly define ROI from the start, including cost, productivity savings and a timeline for when savings will be realized.

Implement effectively 

Understanding the business' unique needs is only the beginning. You must still choose a system and get management on board. Like any new technology roll-out, success relies on proper planning. Here are some key points to help you get started:

* Identify installation points: Deploy the technology in the places (e.g., offices, conference rooms) where it will get the most use, taking advantage of who will be videoconferencing and for what purpose. While scouting locations, be sure to document network and system settings to increase the speed of troubleshooting.

* Test the network and the system: Whether changes were made to increase bandwidth or provide faster, dedicated access, the network should be tested. Next, test the system's intended uses at each installation location. Once the system's standard teleconferencing uses are confirmed as working, extended testing may help determine whether the current configurations will support potential future functionalities, such as upgrading your videoconferencing capabilities or expanding those capabilities across the organization.

* Build plans for training staff, scheduling and ad hoc support: Regardless of the potential benefits of a new technology, untrained users are unlikely to use the system. Smooth integration requires planning for the back end. Most importantly, users must understand how and when to use the system. Additionally, proper scheduling minimizes conflict for multi-user systems. Finally, understanding how IT will support the technology and communicating that information to users both helps reduce uncertainty and manage expectations.

Avoid common pitfalls

Working with an experienced technology partner has its benefits -- notably, they understand the common "sticking points" and how to address -- or avoid -- them. Here are the most common mistakes:

* Implementing the technology "just because": Acquiring institutional/executive buy-in before undertaking a project ensures everyone is comfortable with the "why" of implementation. Failing to secure necessary buy-ins risks compromising the long-term success of the project.

* Forgetting the infrastructure foundation required to support the technology: It is easy to get excited about the front-office technology and overlook the foundation by which it is enabled. Don't cut corners when it comes to infrastructure. When organizations fail to ensure that the network can support the new system, the result can be poor quality and an overall sub-par user experience.

* Having an "if you build it, they will come" mentality: It is part of the IT's responsibility to drive user adoption of new technology in day-to-day activities. Don't assume that users will jump on board right away without any understanding or incentive.

* Focusing on the minutia instead of the big picture: Proper planning and expectations will ensure that the unexpected, such as faulty wiring or a computer malfunction, never derails the big picture.

Ultimately, deploying a videoconferencing system is no different than installing other new technologies: communicating the purpose and benefits up-front ensures users reap all of the potential gains once the system is in place.

By following these steps and focusing on concrete goals, videoconferencing can become a highly effective communication tool in your company's arsenal. There will always be hiccups along the way but, as long as they are addressed from the start, the end result will meet your -- and your executives' -- expectations.

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