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Collaboration: improving meeting productivity

According to American humourist Dave Barry: “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings’.” But, finds Ian McMurray, AV technology is providing the tools that might make Barry change his mind

Meetings continue to dominate the way we work: according to a study of one company by management consultants Bain & Company, published in the Harvard Business Review, some 300,000 employee hours were consumed each year in supporting a single meeting. And: it must be hard to feel like a winner in the game of life if, as a CEO, you find you spend 50% of your time in meetings – which is, apparently, typically the case.

If you haven’t seen the original classic training video Meetings, Bloody Meetings created by Video Arts, starring John Cleese, it comes highly recommended. It does, however, recall what seems like something of a bygone era when all meetings were scheduled, disciplined, formal – and duly minuted (or not, as the video demonstrates).

The world has moved on, and the nature of meetings has unquestionably changed. They’re now far more likely to be ad hoc, casual, informal – and probably more productive…

And, such is the geographically dispersed nature of many of today’s companies, it’s highly likely that all the participants will not be at the same location. What each participant will almost certainly have, though, is information to share with colleagues.

Welcome to the brave new world of collaboration – part, along with videoconferencing, for example, of the same, overarching concept of unified communications (UC).

Eureka moment

Ray McGroarty, global director for enterprise UC solutions at Polycom, provides some insight. “Brian Hinman, Polycom’s co-founder, said once that his ‘Eureka moment’ was when he realised that we were not in the videoconferencing business,” he smiles, “but in the collaboration industry.”

McGroarty is clear that UC and collaboration are symbiotic, and that UC necessarily has collaboration at its heart – giving the lie to a widely perpetuated generalisation that, where videoconferencing was designed to enable people to talk together, collaboration tools are designed to enable them to work together.

“Meetings aren’t just about seeing and hearing other people,” McGroarty continues. “It’s about working together on a project, plan or even a specific document. You meet with people to collaborate.”

“Unified communications is a broad umbrella term,” believes Bryan Edwards, sales manager at UK integrator Reflex. “There’s no one product that can achieve unified communications. Rather, it is a set of products and services that work together to provide a consistent, unified user experience. In my view, UC incorporates collaboration – for example, through collaborative devices such as touchscreens and interactive whiteboards or software services, as part of an overall UC strategy. In a nutshell, UC is the strategy; collaboration is one of the tactics to achieve it.”

Frustrating, painful

A worthwhile question, though, is perhaps how collaboration solutions are different to the AV solutions already widely used in meetings? Mark Tildesley, general manager at TD Maverick, describes what he has experienced.

“Meetings are often a frustrating, painful experience where not enough actually gets done,” he says. “Many people consider them the biggest waste of time in their work week. It takes too long to start a meeting – 12 minutes on average— and further time is wasted trying to get complex technology to work. The flow of discussion is interrupted when someone tries to share content or bring in external data and the first person to connect to the projector ‘drives the whole meeting, making it harder for others to share content. Ideas can be lost at the end of meeting; action items and content aren’t always shared with participants, and the remote experience can be very frustrating: meaningful collaboration often requires travel in order to be there in person.”

Few would disagree with his assessment of the shortcomings of meetings that all too many have shared – and collaboration solutions are designed to address them.

Microsoft’s launch of Office365 has collaboration at its heart: a guiding principle is that most documents – of whatever type – are worked on by multiple people. Here, the cloud comes into its own. Polycom signed a strategic agreement with Microsoft in 2010 and McGroarty’s colleague Charlie James, who is director, Microsoft Alliance, EMEA for Polycom, believes that Office365 – perhaps surprisingly for some – is something that AV companies need to sit up and take notice of.

“Developing innovative endpoints that interoperate with Office 365 is a huge market opportunity for the AV industry,” he says, going on to describe his company’s recent launch of Polycom RealPresence Trio, which he claims is the world’s first smart hub for group collaboration.

“The AV and IT industries are becoming much closer in terms of technologies used,” adds Nick Mawer, marketing manager at Kramer, “but in particular, we have found ways of directly supporting the Microsoft office solutions – reducing boundaries, and improving flexibility when collaborating.” He points out that Kramer’s VIA wireless presentation solution is designed primarily for local collaboration, but that VIAs can be linked to connect remote participants.

“The VIA is designed to make it easier to get actual work done during meetings,” laughs Mawer.

Great fanfare

Office 365 isn’t Microsoft’s only offering for collaboration, though. Last year, to great fanfare, it announced the Surface Hub.

“Microsoft created a first of its kind experience with Surface Hub,” believes Tildesley, whose company secured rights to distribute the Surface Hub throughout Europe. “The device is simple and intuitive enough for anyone to feel comfortable walking up and using it, blending Microsoft’s services together into a single package to give people an intuitive, powerful way to work together.”

“The AV/UC industry is essential to the successful implementation of this new solution,” he continues. “In my opinion, the AV/UC experts ensure the functionality and, most importantly, the end-user experience is outstanding. Traditional AV/UC companies are used to bringing complex solutions to their customers and making these solutions easy to use and a positive experience; with the Microsoft Hub solution this is more important than ever and this really plays to the strengths of the these guys.”

First deliveries of the Hub were delayed, so user feedback is still in short supply.

“The jury on the Surface Hub is still out,” notes Romeo Baertsoen, VP strategic marketing, corporate at Barco. “It will be very interesting to see how people experience the product. Microsoft seems to have done a lot of homework. The product is aimed at the market segment of group productivity where the AV industry has been typically very strong. There are already a fair amount of products in that area, like the SMART boards, InFocus Mondopad and so on that have had varying success. Microsoft has, of course, a tremendous brand, an enormous commercial reach and tons of data on how people use their products. This might prove to be a successful combination for the use cases they are aiming at.”

Fantastic potential

“As yet, we have not installed one Surface Hub,” says Edwards. “However, we are seeing a huge impact for the potential of this solution with our clients. Microsoft has done a great job of getting the message out to the market. The result is that the sell is actually quite straightforward for us. It’s a product that offers fantastic potential for integrators to add value around the solution.”

 Integrator opportunities in collaboration