Woe to Physical Workspaces That Don't Allow for Virtual Team Reality
The rising use of new team communications and collaboration tools should have many organizations rethinking their conference room technology choices.
One of the things I like about the unified communications and collaboration market is that it's constantly evolving, which means I always have something new to cover. Currently what's new is the rise of team collaboration tools, or what me and fellow No Jitter blogger, Dave Michels, like to call workstream communications and collaboration (WCC). Unfortunately, as we watch the evolution of virtual team collaboration enabled via WCC, we haven't seen companies keep pace on the physical team meeting space.
As discussed in previous No Jitter coverage, WCC tool vendors include Acano, Biba, Cisco (with Spark), Redbooth, Interactive Intelligence, and Unify (with Circuit). To give you an idea of how hot this market is, Dave and I have already compiled a list of 14 companies as part of a joint report on the WCC market we're working on -- and we know that list isn't exhaustive.
In this digital business era, companies that can make the best decision with the right people in as short a time as possible are gaining competitive advantage. Additionally, the new generation of workers is very collaborative, and these users seek new ways of working in physical team environments. Unified communications tools are individual-centric; while they allow for team members to interact individually, they don't do well at supporting simultaneous collaboration among team members at large. WCC tools, on the other hand, are team-centric, designed expressly for that.
Last month, after reading the SMART Technologies-sponsored No Jitter post, "From Communications to Collaboration in the Conference Room, I got to thinking how very little has been done to align the physical team meeting space with the virtual team collaboration enabled by WCC. You may consider the topic of the physical room to be somewhat old school, but the fact remains that you can find tens of millions of meeting spaces, ranging from huddle rooms to large open areas, in enterprise organizations today. Despite all the benefits that virtual collaboration brings, teams still want to meet physically when possible to achieve the highest levels of productivity.
In practicality, in-building workspaces have challenges when connecting physical teams with their virtual counterparts. To help understand the problem, picture the last time you met with a team in a physical space while trying to engage a virtual audience. You likely encountered these challenges, even though you may not thought of them as issues.
- Visual communications is not democratized. Many conference rooms are equipped with great video systems, but a single camera at the end of the room overlooking a long table creates an unnatural way to collaborate. Typically one person, probably the team leader, sits at the head of the table while others sit around the sides. In this scenario, virtual team members typically can see the team leader "face to face," but see only the backs of everybody else's heads as they look at the leader as well. This can be problematic if, say, a sales manager is trying to study how a customer selection team is responding to a sales pitch. Innovations like Polycom's EagleEye and Cisco's TelePresence SpeakerTrack technologies do a good job of enabling the view to follow the speaker, but participants sometimes want or need to see somebody other than that person. Ideally, meeting participants should be able to see everybody else equally. Some video systems, such as Polycom's CX5000 series, partially addresses the issue with their filmstrip effect, but the better approach is allowing everyone to see each other within the room setting.
- Content is single-threaded. Walk into any meeting space, and one of the first things youwill see is a video cable running across the table for use by people who need to share content. Obviously, making a meeting meaningful is difficult to do without sharing content -- which is why many meeting spaces are outfitted with a display and a video connection. The problem is that the content sharing is individual-centric. By that, I mean when I am sharing content with the team, the only thing we all can see is that specific content. Should someone else want to share content, I need to unplug the cable and hand it over so that person can plug it into his or her machine for content sharing. What happens if we want to go back and look at the content I had shared? We have to swap cables again. The process of passing the cable back and forth can be disruptive, and cause the team to lose focus. Even if the sole focus is on one presenter's slides, seeing multiple pieces of content at once really isn't possible. Years ago Avaya had toyed around with a virtual meeting space in which participant avatars could move between multiple screens to see multiple content streams. This was the right idea, but the process for virtual participants was cumbersome and didn't address the physical meeting space.
- Knowledge is lost as soon as we leave the meeting room. Few rooms have recording capabilities, which means that most of the knowledge from the meeting is lost as soon as people walk out. Sometimes the audio portion is captured, but that requires going back through a long recording and trying to find the spots of interest. One of the only ways to assure knowledge retention is to assign a team member to take notes diligently and then to share those in a team email. Having to take copious notes, however, is a tremendous burden to put on someone -- plus it generally takes away from that person's ability to collaborate.
All of these points can be summarized with the thesis that the technology largely deployed in today's meeting spaces forces team members to adjust the way they work. Instead of being able to work naturally, people have to find where the camera is, focus on a specific bit of content, or only be able to contribute partially. Instead, agile teams need tools in workspaces that enable users to move around and collaborate naturally. Only then can we unlock the true potential of teams.
As part of my ongoing research and coverage of this space, I'd love to hear what team-friendly tools you're looking at or using. Please add your feedback in the comments section below!