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Lowest Common Denominator Gets a Bad Rap

I have often wondered why the vendors that sell unified communications solutions don't use them more often in their daily interactions with the analyst community. Many's the time I've been invited to participate in an analyst briefing, only to receive the slides in advance of the call, via email, with the briefing itself conducted via audio conference. Often, I participate in calls about the value of video conferencing, with no video actually in use.

But the truth is, such retro meetings probably better serve a large portion of the audience than a full-fledged UC affair would. After all, analysts travel--a lot--and we are always touting the value of the mobile workplace. But rarely are the web conferencing services I'm invited to available on my Android device, which leaves me calling into an audio conference--and thankful for the dial-in details and the pre-distributed PowerPoint deck (at least I can read PDFs on my phone).

There was a brief moment in time about 12 months ago when vendors seemed so enamored of the VoIP audio available in their web conferencing applications that they refused to send separate dial-in details unless specifically asked--a request that often came at the last minute from me, when I realized somewhere in an airport lounge or conference hallway that I didn't have the info I needed to simply dial in. (Avaya’s web.alive doesn't even have the option of synching with audio-only calls, which means if you're not near a PC, you can't participate.)

Now comes Cisco, with its recent decision to offer all its analyst calls via telepresence. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea--and it's certainly an understandable one. Cisco has a business interest in pushing the value of telepresence, which does improve the meeting experience substantially, and its systems are impressive. Why not show them off and leverage the advantages of immersive video in one fell swoop? And the vendor is inclusive, too--it lets analysts who don't live near a Cisco telepresence room dial in via WebEx or telephone.

Since I live in a small town in Colorado, I am three hours from the nearest Cisco telepresence system, so that option is out for me. Instead, I participate in these sessions via WebEx when I can, and on my phone when I'm not near a PC with an Internet connection. But the results have been disappointing.

I have now attended several Cisco meetings in which some participants join via telepresence (a few of whom seem to be in the same room as the Cisco people), others via WebEx, and a small number via phone. To someone not participating via video, these calls feel very disconnected, even unwelcoming. What seems to happen is, the people in the room with the Cisco people dominate the conversation, followed by people in other telepresence rooms. It’s hard for WebEx and phone participants to join in without feeling like they are "interrupting" the conversation. (Also, it always takes several minutes for the people in the telepresence rooms to come online and get everything working as it should, leaving web and audio participants listening to dead silence, or the distant background noise of a roomful of people speaking among themselves.)

Working teams--people who know each other well and have spent hours, days or even years interacting on a regular basis--can take advantage of the latest and greatest technology in a mixed environment with good results, since even low-tech participants feel comfortable speaking up, and they can clue into the conversations taking place in the background. But when it comes to meetings of relative strangers, I really think you have to democratize the medium--i.e. have everyone join by WebEx or phone (the two are easily integrated at this point, although Microsoft has the unfortunate habit of taking questions only via online chat), or have everyone join by telepresence. If you choose the latter, you will obviously lose participants who cannot reach a conference room, but the experience would be better for those who can.

If everyone is on a phone or web call, everyone suffers the same participation limitations; if some people are on video or telepresence, they get a communications advantage. Vendors spend a lot of time these days talking about cross-platform and device compatibility, meaning that "everyone" can join a collaboration session, regardless of the device they're using or the connection to the Internet at their disposal. But while the technology may be there, the sociology isn't--and maybe it never will be.