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Staying in touch: Corporate multisite AV

Being summoned to the cafeteria to hear the latest news is becoming a thing of the past as video becomes pervasive and organisations adapt their internal communications strategy to accommodate an increasingly dispersed and mobile workforce, as Ian McMurray finds out.

Since the first radio broadcasts were made to workers on the factory floor to improve morale and productivity, the science of internal communications (IC) has moved from entertaining through informing and persuading to engaging – to the point where it has, according to IC industry professionals, become a way of managing change, of driving dialogue and understanding employees. According to a 2006 study by HR consulting firm Watson Wyatt, companies that communicate effectively with their employees have a 19.4% higher market premium than those that don’t. Those findings were confirmed by a 2008 study by Towers Perrin, which found that companies that engage their employees at a higher level achieve better financial results. The stakes for improving internal communications are, it seems, high – and, given that the key word is ‘communication’, it’s no surprise that the AV industry is at the forefront of what’s happening, particularly where companies are spread across multiple locations. “We have noticed a large change in enquiries for internal communications tools over the last year,” says Mike Cuckow, sales director, EMEA and Asia-Pacific at IPTV and networked video company Cabletime. “The shift in internal communications has doubled the enquiries we are receiving. Technology has become ubiquitous, so solutions that were previously targeted solely at consumers have now become more appropriate to corporate use.” “Corporate communications is a major growth opportunity for digital signage,” adds Jeff Hastings, chief executive of BrightSign. “Call centres, production facilities, sales offices and corporate headquarters can all benefit from using digital signage effectively.”
 “We are seeing the market growing extremely fast,” says Steven Forrest, channel marketing manager at IPTV communications solutions provider Exterity. “More and more organisations are realising the value of video for communications and the impact that it can have on employee satisfaction and engagement.” One of many solutionsVideoconferencing perhaps stood alone at one time as the AV solution of choice for communications, whether external or internal. It still plays a central role for many organisations, and looks set to continue to do so – but, increasingly, it’s one of only many solutions being deployed. Other technologies including IPTV, streaming video and digital signage all offer advantages.
 “We have seen a tremendous maturation of the market for video,” notes Paul Reeves, director of EMEA at enterprise streaming video company VBrick. “Just a few years ago, videoconferencing was often the de facto answer when people thought about using video to extend communications to multiple sites. No doubt videoconferencing is still important – but as the workplace dynamics change and more employees are mobile, work from home or use shared offices, ‘big iron’ videoconferencing is too limiting. 
 “Streaming video has taken off as organisations have begun to recognise that a distributed workforce needs more proactive communications in order to influence their behaviour and include them in a corporate culture. The days of herding all of the employees into the company cafeteria or auditorium are becoming a thing of the past. Time differences and location can’t be a barrier to good communication. This is how a streaming video solution impacts internal communications.”
 Videoconferencing suppliers have, however, been quick to react to what is a paradigm shift as Ray McGroarty, director of enterprise solutions at Polycom EMEA, points out. 
 “In the past year, smartphones and tablets have really taken off and with this the ‘Bring Your Own Device’ trend, with many employees expecting to be able to use their own smartphone or tablet for corporate purposes,” he says. “Bringing consumer devices into the business environment has a significant impact and allows mobile device users to be online wherever they are and join video sessions at any time.”
 “Another important development is the availability of VaaS [Video as a Service] services,” continues McGroarty. “Video collaboration delivered through the Cloud is a revolutionary way for organisations to keep their employees connected and productive, improve teamwork, cut costs and accelerate better decision making, without companies having to pay out significant sums of money in capital expenditure spend.”
 Andy Wright, managing director of UK videoconferencing systems distributor Video Corporation, also notes the importance of VaaS, noting that the advantages it brings in terms of affordability and flexibility are bringing increasing numbers of SMEs to the table.
 “There is a growing requirement to enable video communications at a personal level,” he goes on. “That can be from the desktop – why go to a dedicated room to make or receive a video call? – or the ability to call from mobile devices such as the iPad, Galaxy or even iPhone. Increasingly, organisations are looking to properly involve mobile devices to make or receive not only point-to-point calls, but also to be able to participate in multi-site/participant calls including room or even immersive telepresence systems. The emergence of H.264 SVC [scalable video coding] as an effective transport method for video on the internet, as opposed to dedicated high-quality IP networks, is also important.” The BYOD phenomenonThe Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) phenomenon is both real and multi-faceted. Employees are, in their spare time, also consumers – consumers who are developing an increasing attachment to the connected world that mobile devices bring, and who are simultaneously (if unconsciously) driving the development of the tools and infrastructure necessary to make high-quality, any-time any-place interactive video streaming a reality. While once perhaps having regarded them as a threat, major organisations are now seeing these devices as an opportunity – albeit one that needs to be carefully managed. 
 Historically, IT professionals in major organisations have been nervous about video, because of its tendency to ‘eat’ bandwidth. 
 “Yes,” says McGroarty, “it is most important that enterprises make sure they have enough bandwidth, and that they test the network’s readiness for video over IP. They need to use software that identifies and prioritises the most critical business applications for delivery first.”
 “The introduction of more mobile devices has complicated video delivery, requiring different H.264 transport mechanisms, depending on the display device,” adds Reeves. “iPads have to have HLS, set-top boxes uses Transport Stream while PCs may use Flash. The VBrick ecosystem is smart enough to determine the format required by each device and deliver it accordingly.” Pressure on bandwidth“Certainly, one of the main concerns within corporate environments is the bandwidth on the network and whether the use of tools such as corporate video will swamp the network,” echoes Forrest. “However, this concern is unfounded as the use of multicast technology enables efficient distribution over the network. Typically, on a 100Mbps connection, under 14% of capacity is used. Delivering SD TV over the same network would add about 5%, regardless of the number of users watching it.”
 “The elimination of analogue and the demand for HD-quality broadcasts to both domestic and corporate users heralds a new era in video communications,” adds Cuckow. “One area of concern, however, is the availability of on-demand streaming services. These are great for domestic use, but in offices they can easily burden the data passage to the LAN, and IT managers need to consider moving to IP television distribution to avoid this.” 
 While network bandwidth and security concerns can make life more difficult for videoconferencing companies, IPTV companies, streaming video companies and IT managers alike – there are other AV technologies involved in internal communications for which life in the corporate sector can actually be easier. 
 “Unlike many digital signage deployments, corporate sites are generally well provided with power and internet connectivity, and the siting of large screens isn’t normally a particular challenge,” says Hastings. “However, there’s no difference between markets when it comes to sensitivity and reliability. Even though the data presented is normally not mission critical, a blue screen in the lobby or even on the production floor looks bad and is not well received anywhere.”
 “The key with corporate digital signage is integration with a company’s established intranet and IT systems,” he continues. “Businesses and organisations all have established ways of collecting KPI statistics and communicating them internally. Digital signage is first and foremost seen as an effective additional channel to supplement these communications but the integration needs to be smooth and seamless. Often, once the signage is in, management realise its potential for implementing completely new functions that weren’t available before – for example, introducing a low-cost TV channel.” Integrating systemsAs a market opportunity for AV professionals, the internal communications market looks highly promising, benefiting, as it does, from rapid developments in the broader technology market and in consumer behaviours. It will also take advantage of technologies such as 3D and holography, as McGroarty points out.
 “Integration with vendors such as Microsoft, IBM and UC players such as Avaya will be crucial moving forward,” adds Wright. “Videoconferencing is certainly no longer a technology area that decides its own destiny. True ‘unified communication’ is still a while away in my opinion, because there are too many vested interests. It will sort itself out – corporates will demand it – but how and when is anyone’s guess.” Highly evolvedIt seems remarkable to think that there was a time when the business world led the consumer world in terms of technology, and that employees could only dream of having access to the technology they used at work. The situation today is almost completely the reverse.
 “Employees nowadays are used to highly evolved media solutions at home,” says Forrest, “and this is setting their expectations higher for the working environment.”
 The last word goes to Paul Reeves: “It might sound trite, but VBrick believes that this is just the beginning of a wave of expansion in streaming video use,” he says. “The tremendous growth in consumer video has laid the groundwork for use in the enterprise. Each of the iPads that’s out there is an HD video player and HD video content creator. Video is becoming a common form of communication – especially if you are in your 20s or younger. Organisations are already adjusting their infrastructure to accommodate how employees expect to work. More change is on the way.”