A Videoconferencing Success Story

I know I’m going to sound cheesy when I say this, but I was really touched and impressed by Sonnenwald et al’s (2002) patience and determination to truly use videoconferencing technologies to increase collaboration.  Even though their action research project was with large groups (30-110 people) in academic institutions, they brought up a lot of practical points that are applicable to smaller meetings and the business world.  I highly recommend reading the whole article, but for those pressed for time, I’ll try to summarize and point out a few noteworthy aspects.  By the way, they also did a fantastic job writing up a concise, informative background of relevant video conferencing research if you’re interested in that kind of stuff.

As researchers before and after Sonnenwald, et al., (2002) have pointed out, social and organizational structures play a big role in making video conferencing work for you (Allan & Thorns 2009; Olsen & Olsen 2000).   It’s easy to have conviction, but for conviction to translate into everyday reality, organizational structures and techniques are essential. Here are some practical things they did that I liked:

Created a collaborative climate—They broke up cliques by forming groups that mixed top dogs (professors) and underdogs (students) from all the various universities.  Each group met weekly to share what they were doing. Remember, one point of collaboration is to get fresh ideas from people you normally might not meet. The only thing that could have used a little more work was creating a more informal and interactive atmosphere during meetings. (Ah, if they had only had VSee then.)

Got everyone on board—People don’t like change, but they’re willing to go with the program if they feel like they make a difference.  When they’re encouraged to voice their concerns and suggestions, and especially when they see improvements made accordingly, it gives them a sense of empowerment and ownership.  Just make sure *everyone* is in on it whenever any changes are made.

Taught everyone how to effectively run a meeting—They rotated the responsibility for each meeting so everyone got to practice, making sure, of course, that experienced members went first as a model. They had a simple checklist of duties:   E-mail the group a week ahead with clear topics and time of meeting, start the meeting by checking to make sure everyone is okay technically and to get help if necessary, introduce the speaker, solicit questions from remote participants, close the meeting, and send out meeting highlights right after.

Encouraged good presentation tips—I know many organizations already teach this, but if you’re not one of the lucky, Lynn Burmark has a skinny fun read with lots of pictures on this topic, called Visual Literacy.

Developed virtual collaboration etiquette for the needs of their group, like:

  • Identifying yourself (name and location) before speaking;
  • Covering the nearest microphone before sneezing, minimizing paper rustling, eating, etc. (not an issue for VSee users);
  • Encouraging presenters not to rush through their presentation and off the stage, but get feedback from their peers.

Thoroughly Thought Out Technical Aspects—I’ll go into this in more detail in another article.

I want go back and talk a little more about one particular aspect of running a meeting that has been an issue for VSee, and I’m sure, for other virtual teams as well.  Our Monday staff meetings are great because they are completely virtual—that is, everyone is meeting on video from a different location, so everyone is equally “mediated” and at the same level of intimacy, BUT we also have Friday VCafés (VSee Café) where we share research ideas like we did in graduate school.  Fridays are a bit tougher because we have “media equality” issues since they are mixed mode meetings, meaning we have roughly half the people are in our Bay Area office seeing each other face-to-face while the rest are on video from various places around the world.  As you might guess or have experienced yourself, it is way too easy for the local team to start having little side conversations that make the remote people feel left out or, worse, like they’re being talked about behind their backs.  To address these issues, we use a moderation team composed of one local and one on-video moderator. These two moderators work in tandem to keep everyone engaged.  If only one moderator is available, we always choose someone on video to be the overall moderator.  This has helped keep everyone in the same conversational frame.

Now going back to Sonnenwald et al., to give you a general idea of all the time, work, and money it took to make collaboration happen for their research group of 110 members and 4 universities, they had:
  • One full-time technical staff member who spent 60% of his/her time working with the research team to meet their needs;
  • Two faculty members and one postdoc fellow to organize video meetings, collect feedback, and implement improvements;
  • Hundreds to fifteen thousand dollars in equipment upgrades;
  • Estimated $50-75 per hour of network services; and
  • Patience, persistence, and the conviction that video collaboration can work!

Let’s remember that in spite of the amount of work that went into developing this project, it was videoconferencing that made it possible for students and professors from all over the country to regularly collaborate with each other while working towards a common goal. It really would not have been possible in another day and age.  So I hope their story and our story inspires and helps you to find ways to create more positive and effective videoconferencing cultures.

References

1. Sonnenwald, D., Solomon, P., Hara, N., Bolliger, R. & Cox, T. 2002. Collaboration in the large: Using video conferencing to facilitate large group interaction.  In A. Gunasekaran and O. Khalil (Eds.) Knowledge and Information Technology in 21st Century Organizations: Human and Social Perspectives, pp. 115-136. Hershey, PA, Idea Publishing.

2. Allan, M. & Thorns, D.  Being face to face: A state of mind or technological design. In B.Whitworth & A. (de) Moor (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Socio Technical Designing and Social Networking Systems, 2009, pp. 440-454. Hershey PA: IGI Global Publications

3. Olson, G. M., & Olson, J. S. (2000). Distance matters. Human Computer Interaction, 15, 139–178.

Comments ( 4 )
  • milton
    Rich Griffin says:

    Great post Milton. I really like the elegant solution you found to keep remote participants engaged in the discussion. I’ll have to remember that one.

    Your point on participant identification, I think, is really important too. I often wished the system I used to use had the ability to display (upon mouse-over an endpoint’s on screen video window) the participant’s
    1.) real name or facility name (not the sometimes silly account name they chose for their account or for the room system)

    2.) endpoint’s city, state/province, country (if all in same country or state then exclude all but different city, etc.)

    3.) endpoint’s local time/date zone. This is important as it would have mediated some of our expectations on folks if we all understood that our team members in India and S. Africa were up at crazy hours to make our eastcoast timezone meetings.

    As our system used a “hollywood squares” display of all 9 endpoints, there was no space to show any info. I especially felt it important to have ready access to this info as some of the participants were known by name only (our sales folk seldom knew the developers – especially those who may have been short term consultants.)

    That would be a swell feature to add to VSee 🙂

  • milton
    Milton says:

    Do let us know how double moderation works out for you!
    Great idea about having identifying time and place with each participant. We’ll have to keep it in mind 🙂

  • milton
    Rich Griffin says:

    What would be uber cool would be to post my location via my cellphone’s GPS. I could log into a mobile-only VSee location server that “talks” to the directory server; or I could use FB places, Google, or any of the myriad other location-aware sites. For organizations with premise VSee servers, or who just block FB, Foursquare, et al; the VSee location server would translate my GPS coordinates to city/state-province/country and would also add local time/date to boot.

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