Video is going mainstream

Howdy folks, business focused video is going mainstream. The range of providers is growing, the price of the hardware is falling and as consumer systems such as Skype and FaceTime grow in popularity, users are getting more comfortable sitting in front of a camera.

Our working patterns are also changing. Increasingly, employees are working remotely, sometimes across time zones. Meanwhile, our customers travel budgets are being cut: even governments are weighing in to reduce commute related pollution. For example, California is mulling proposals that businesses over a certain size should encourage remote working wherever possible.

In such an environment, video conferencing is the perfect way for a distributed workforce to keep in touch with the office – and clients. The cost savings and the opportunities for more agile working practices make it worth serious contemplation, whatever size our customer organisation.

Unseen advantage –

What’s the biggest advantage of video conferencing? People look at the money they save on travel costs. But the bigger benefits come from productivity and the fact that our customers can have meetings that simply wouldn’t happen otherwise because people are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because of the way video works these days it means you can bring in specialists whose advice you need with very little notice, even if they can only spare 15 minutes.

Such ad-hoc consultations simply wouldn’t be possible without video conferencing: those spare 15 minutes wouldn’t be enough to make a physical visit viable. It is important to point out that it’s actually in the implied proximity of the speakers that video conferencing’s value lies. Companies like mine can provide multi-stream systems for segregated colleges, where male and female students attend the same lectures, but in separate rooms. Logitech, meanwhile, has established a niche in worship: its cameras are popular among churches that broadcast across the web.

Go Big! –
With such varied use scenarios, it’s no surprise that there isn’t a one-size fits all solution. How, therefore, do you choose the right hardware, software and online service for your business? The more you communicate externally, the more interoperability matters. The more external users you need to meet, the more you’ll have to consider what works for them. We’ve seen many of our customers solve this by saying they’ll just use whatever their customers use Skype for Business, WebEx, or Google Hangouts, for example. Ultimately, though, that breaks, because you have so many different tools, each department chooses what it wants to use, and you can’t possibly support all of them.

The key, then, is interoperability, and thankfully that’s something that companies like mine understands. The big players all sit on standards bodies, and they support rival services wherever possible –including Skype for Business and Lync, such is the power of Office 365. In most cases, you can purchase your first camera, mic or whole-room system without having to worry about locking yourself out of any of the major video platforms, and you can generally move from one supplier to another, taking your hardware with you.

It’s a principle that’s helped Swiss video conferencing giant Logitech grow to a dominant market position in just four years. Rather than trying to tie customers into a conferencing service of its own, the company provides hardware that serves as an “on-ramp” to whichever providers you might want to use. Logitech was the first company to come to the market with that philosophy, of not making the software or the service, so their hardware works equally well with every platform.

Strong and stable –

What about security? If you’re using third-party hardware, rather than getting your hardware and services from a single supplier, are you increasing the risk of hacker attacks or data leaks? Not at all, the encryption applied to your active call is handled by the provider from which you’re buying the service. Most business-grade services have a failsafe, too: if encryption is turned on at one end point, you won’t be able to make the call unless the other endpoint is turned on as well.

Consequently, it’s no surprise that video conferencing providers take security so seriously. It’s crucial that our customer’s managers and decision-makers can discuss business-sensitive issues without worrying about leaks. When choosing a vendor, ask specifically how they handle encryption: they shouldn’t be afraid to discuss it.

User Buy in –

The practical and financial benefits of video conferencing are clear enough that getting buy-in from our customers IT and management is rarely a problem. However, what about the users who are being asked to embrace a new mode of communication? When people have used a certain tool in a certain way for the majority of their career, getting them to change is exceedingly difficult. Getting someone to give up their BT number is tough, which is why we spend a lot of time on interoperability and ease-of-use. It is possible to tear down barriers that the incumbent vendor doesn’t have to overcome because no matter how bad the experience is, it’s familiar. Even if you make things infinitely better and easier, it’s still changed and people have a hard time with that.

At the opposite end of the age scale, younger employees are often much more open to using new technologies. This means that some of our larger customers are even using their video-centric approach to communications as a selling point. Our customers recognised the need to provide video as part of their communication processes, particularly for people under 30 who are used to doing it in their private lives and want to do it in business as well. In high-skill industries how do they attract and retain staff [other than by making the office environment fit their way of working]? While it’s not possible that video is the answer to all our customers’ problems but it is part of the toolset that goes with the modern working environment. Moreover, video conferencing can even help keep your workforce happier and healthier. People who work from home, or travel a lot, are the ones who hunger for something better, because they’re isolated, culturally and physically. If video helps them to do their job better or saves them a trip to the office just to be present that makes them more effective.

Business grade –

There are plenty of free, consumer-grade video conferencing systems, and for a small business, it’s very tempting to just make do with Skype, Hangouts or FaceTime. This is particularly true when the move to incorporate video is driven by the users, rather than management.

Be warned, though – free services could be a false economy. I have seen a lot of younger workers coming into the workforce as college grads, who use Hangouts and FaceTime a lot in their consumer lives, and they’re bringing those tools to the workplace. Many customers – particularly small ones – start with these consumer grade tools, but get frustrated because they don’t support multiple people on the call, or flexibility of screen layout, or simply because the quality of the video isn’t that good. That’s when they start to look at business-grade tools. Ultimately, if you pay less you get less – from a support standpoint, quality, service level…define it however you may. Many customers have decided that free isn’t good enough anymore, as they have no SLA, insufficient interoperability, no revenue producing functions, and so on. The key, is not to think about cost, but instead about the culture: What is the culture of the organisation we are selling to? What are the expectations? And if our customer is in a larger environment or a multinational, how does that affect how they communicate? However we get our customers how to choose to implement video conferencing, it’s important to remember that it’s a supplement to other means of sharing and communicating, rather than a wholesale replacement. It’s doubtful that any organisation that tried to entirely abandon physical travel and rely entirely on video would achieve the results it hoped for. It’s similar, perhaps, to the fax, which provided a useful alternative to physical mail but certainly didn’t supplant it.

Video conferencing is complementary to services like Microsoft Teams, Yammer, and Cisco Spark. It is unlikely that video replaces face-to-face meetings. The obvious thing is you can now have more frequent meetings, or the meetings you’re going to have can be one-third over video and two-thirds in person.

The good news is that this is very much a field in which you can experiment before you commit. Short contracts, broad hardware interoperability and seat or time-based options from many of our vendor’s mean our customer initial investment needn’t be large and can be built up over time.

What our customers really can’t afford to do, therefore, is ignore the potential of video conferencing. In today’s lightning-fast market, only the agilest organisations thrive. The key question isn’t how much it will cost to make the leap, but how.

Hope you all have been keeping well, feel free to comment and share!

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