Video portal power

New corporate video portals combine conferencing and content management to grab employees' attention, increase collaboration, enhance e-learning and even generate revenue.

"Our philosophy at Cat is you don't start your day with Wheaties.You start it with the Cat portal," says Gus Otto, who manages business-collaboration  infrastructure for the $23 billion-per-year industrial equipment manufacturer in Peoria, Ill.

Caterpillar is integrating video-specific portals  with business-unit portals and the company's intranet home page. From Caterpillar's portals, users can watch "Background News," a daily company newscast. A communications tab provides access to executive speeches and corporate communications. Just as advertisers use television to capture the attention of consumers, Caterpillar uses the video portal to grab employees. "You have to have engaged employees to continue to increase your bottom line," Otto says. "This new way to deliver content is increasing engagement."

Set up a video portal on your network

Citigroup, the New York financial services company, is revamping and expanding its approach to video communications as a way of making employees more productive, saving money and even making money. The changes focus on creating, distributing and displaying video on business-unit portals. "We have thought through the entire technological chain associated with video," says Tony Raimundo, Citigroup's senior vice president for digital media and collaboration technologies. "We standardized how people create, distribute and watch video."

The goal for the company is to enhance more than 400 Citigroup internal portals with live and archived video. Rather than force viewers to watch content on a specialized video portal, Citigroup delivers content to the virtual space in which people work. "My fixed-income division does business all day long on their portal. We're adding video to that portal," Raimundo says.

"The trend toward video portals is significant," says Andrew Davis, a senior analyst with Wainhouse Research. "It straddles two worlds that are colliding - conferencing portals and content management portals."

Conferencing portals let users schedule and launch videoconferences and Web conferences.

Content management portals provide the ability to search key words and pull up a variety of data types including images, video, documents, slides and audio.

"Suppose I'm working with you and three other guys developing a new coffee cup. You've got the specification document. Someone else took photos of competing coffee cups. There's a streaming video of the CEO of a competitor talking about the coffee cup market. I want to be able to go to an integrated portal and see all of that content," Davis says.

Oracle  uses a dual approach to video portals. Besides creating a one-stop-shopping portal for all video content, Oracle also is including much of that content in existing portals. "We have a comprehensive rich media portal that has also been stripped across other organizational portals like the North American sales portal and the government, education and healthcare portal," says Nathaniel Robinson, who runs a video production and distribution service group within Oracle.

The Redwood Shores, Calif., company launched the group five years ago after realizing the cost per attendee of streamed video presentations is $2.50 compared with $350 per attendee at a hotel. Robinson's group has deployed a homegrown universal player that provides a video/audio window, a data window and a browser displaying links to related content.

Oracle also uses video-logger technology from Virage, now a division of Autonomy. The Virage product logs each video clip, creates an index from the audio and allows keyword searches so that users can retrieve content. "The rich media adds this element - people are very familiar with their TV and respond well to it," Robinson says. "Video is such an engaging experience, and the retention is so much better than sending someone a Web page."

The new corporate communications

While e-learning has been the most compelling use of video for many companies, video portals are giving them the opportunity to create an order-of-magnitude shift in corporate communications. Used effectively, video can capture employees by entertaining and informing them. Because users can access all video content from a business-unit portal or video-specific portal, corporate communicators can generate "stickiness" for messages by putting critical content where it will be viewed.

Some videoconferencing rooms rapidly are becoming content-creation facilities thanks to videoconferencing-to-streaming gateway hardware from a company called Starbak. Early customers include Johnson & Johnson's Ethicon subsidiary, Lockheed Martin and the Common Fund, a Wilton, Conn., mutual fund company.

The gateway, a hardware appliance, "gives the videoconference legs," says Arthur Landry, the Common Fund's voice-and-video manager, by converting it to a Windows Media stream that can be included on video portals or put on a DVD. "Any videoconference we do we can archive to a streaming server," he says. "That includes everything [in the audio and video] as well as the associated PowerPoint."

Videoconferencing from portals

As videoconferencing evolves from an island of technology to a single capability of video portals, companies see huge potential in cost savings. "We have videoconferencing systems expiring under leases," Caterpillar's Otto says. "I'm thinking maybe I don't need hardware any more. Our room videoconferencing usage has decreased. Our Web conferencing has gone through the roof." Otto says he expects to add videoconferencing capability to Caterpillar's video portal and business unit portals sometime next year.

Caterpillar also uses the MediaMall appliance from Certeon to distribute and re-host video on underutilized LAN  servers, reducing use of the WAN for streaming content.

"Videoconferencing won't be big until it permeates the desktop, and it won't permeate the desktop without portal technology," Davis says.

Many companies plan to add the ability to join videoconferences through instant messaging and audio-only Web conferencing. The idea is that if employees travel and use notebook computers with limited-bandwidth connections, they still can participate in video meetings in a limited way. "We look at real-time collaboration as a multimedia environment. Whether you're on an analog or IP phone or whatever, you ought to be able to join in a videoconference and gain knowledge," Otto says.

24-hour executive communication

For many executives, video portals provide the opportunity to reach large numbers of employees without leaving their offices or adjacent conference rooms.

For example, an HR executive might want to update employees on changes to the benefit plan. A sales executive might wish to address field sales representatives globally. "One of our executives has to visit 500 offices in a year," Citigroup's Raimundo says. "If she can reach 20,000 people at once, that can be very valuable."

Citigroup has chosen MPEG1, MPEG4, RealNetworks' RealPlayer and Windows Media as standard video formats. Raimundo's group also has deployed Cisco's Enterprise Content Delivery Network, which re-hosts content on servers closer to users and converts multicast to unicast for segments of the network that are not multicast-enabled.

Citigroup has implemented a video publishing and management system from Media Publisher, which routes video and controls scheduling and resources. The system lets employees publish video content but provides centralized control over who may access each video clip and how long each clip remains available. The system also reports who has viewed each video.

As video portals give corporate communications departments more powerful stay-in-touch tools, global corporations ultimately can create 24-hour live company news feeds available through portals, sort of an internal CNN. During the boom years of the late 1990s, Oracle launched a 24-hour streaming "channel" called the eBusiness Network that focused more on industry trends than on company news. However, with the economic bust came the network's demise. "We created all our own programming," Oracle's Robinson says. "At one point, we had 12 different shows verging on edutainment."

Turning assets into profits

Beyond corporate communications, video portals and the back-end technologies supporting them give companies the opportunity to create, manage, distribute and capitalize on multimedia assets. "With our smart people - bankers, economists, equity researchers - in front of the camera, we can create valuable intellectual property and then turn it into video assets," Raimundo says. "We can then show those assets to customers. That's very powerful."

Those assets can be profitable, if you ask Gerry Kaufhold, an analyst with In-Stat/MDR. "Once companies start making money with their portal, there's no turning back. It will be an alternative to TV."

As video portals take hold, companies are considering two primary directions for their evolution. One option is to add increasing functionality to video portals including videoconferencing and indexing, search and retrieval of all media types including images, presentations, audio and text. In this scenario, the corporation must internally market the video portal as the enterprise communications hub, a project driven by corporate communications at least as much as IT.

Another option is to build all video portal features into business unit portals. "The reason people have gone with video-only portals is that by focusing on one media type they can do a deeper, richer job," says Tom Pinckney, CTO of appliance vendor Starbak. "However, I'm betting this will become a checkmark feature for broader portal vendors."

Undoubtedly, companies will enrich video-specific portals with other data types. The decision whether to include video portal capability on business-unit portals or create, manage and market video-specific or communication portals ultimately will depend on organizational culture. In corporations where employees spend most of the day working from business-unit portals, it likely will be more efficient to bring video content to them. In cultures that emphasize corporate communications and in which business-unit portal usage is limited, the communications-specific portal will fit business needs more closely.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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