Collaboration Special: Working together drives productivity
Peter Lloyd, January 31, 2013
Exclusive new research carried out by AV shows that by blending conferencing and presentations into a range of interactive options, collaborative techniques can help drive productivity, improve decision-making and enable new styles of education and training. Peter Lloyd reports.
Collaborative communications have become more than just an industry buzzword used to boost sales. Client organisations are already driving collaboration by adding data exchange, interactive screens and mobile video conferencing to their existing audio and video conferencing facilities.
Cloud-based bridging services allowing external connection to networks are seen as a key part of collaboration’s future. And users are clear why they want to use collaborative communications for education, training and decision-making – they recognise the potential benefits of faster decision-making and increased productivity.
Those – and the profound influence that IT departments will have on the procurement and management of collaborative communications – were the key findings from AV Magazine’s online survey of the collaborative communications market, carried out at the beginning of December.
The full survey results – which include the types of equipment thought essential to collaborative working – are given in the accompanying pages and it is significant that three topics covered in this edition of AV Magazine are clearly inter-related. The procurement and management of collaborative systems is a clear example of how AV and IT departments and their clients need to work together. And the demand for collaborative working is bound to have an effect on organisations’ need to AV support.
However, the degree of AV/IT interaction and the support needs are bound to vary from one organisation to another according to the mix of collaborative communication systems and products being deployed.
For many large organisations it seems clear that collaborative communications will principally be deployed as part of a Unified Communications (UC) initiative which adds interactive data exchange, room-based or mobile conferencing, video streaming and the use of touch screens in meeting rooms to an overall presence and telecoms ‘engine’.
UC-linked initiatives are, however, just part of a wider (and bigger) market.
In departmentally-funded meeting rooms it’s likely that users will focus on improving the meeting experience through interactive boards and screens, rather than setting up global directories and enabling multi-point remote meetings. They are then likely to bring in remote participants in the meetings using cloud services.
There’s also likely to be a third user sector for which the key drivers are audience interaction, peer-to-peer learning and software which coheres the experience. In this kind of space the use of touch screen displays, interaction with smart devices, polling the audience and displaying the conclusions will be more important than remote connectivity.
Learning from experience
The three sectors represent a market division, or a series of divisions, which suppliers are already well aware of.
“Large enterprises want integrated solutions to make sure they can have a proper directory and centralised management,” says Kay Ohse, director of VideoMeet, Deutsche Telekom’s cloud-based conferencing enterprise. “They need to go outside for cloud services to integrate with packages such as Avaya, Lync and Skype, but those are big IT projects that require a great deal of piloting and testing.
“In the mid-market companies want to do more video co-operation without having to invest in room systems, so sharing desktop content such as marketing material, engineering drawings or sales forecasts is good enough for them, and they don’t want to invest in hardware – they want to pay as they go.”
In both cases, he adds “the initial roll-out is always about internal collaboration and the second step is about extending the enterprise by connecting customers, mobile workers and suppliers.” At that point, he notes, “it is the content that makes the video solution collaborative.”
It’s the content, and the extension of the physical organisation to include remote sites and enable flexible working, that makes the whole idea of collaborative communications so appealing to clients.
“The business challenges we all face are not getting easier,” says MeetingZone chairman Tim Duffy (who, like Ohse, is a VC industry and Polycom alumni). “The issues of more competition, more innovation, faster pace of change and more globalisation are pressing and the only way to stay ahead is to squeeze every gram of innovation from within an organisation, which means liberating teams to collaborate and execute rapidly.
“Unified communication/collaboration adds the ‘engine oil’ to an organisation so it can work faster and better, but users find it hard to imagine what the new unified communication/collaboration world can offer.
“Today they may regard bringing together ‘communication’ services as an extension of conferencing, but in the future the total integration of communications in the web world with integration into business processes could prove totally transformational,” concludes Duffy.
The business need
Establishing the business need for collaborative communications is almost a no-brainer, as plenty of surveys have pointed out, but there are legacy problems to overcome.
As long ago as 2011 a report from Steljes and Smart Technologies found that improving business productivity was a key business objective for 93 per cent of the organisations they surveyed; that cost reduction and competitive advantage were key components of this; and they hoped to use collaboration technology to reduce travel and enable flexible working.
However, organisations tend to use just two main ways of communication: Face-to-face meetings and email.
Another survey, by Forrester Consulting for Citrix Online, had found the same thing: When people want to collaborate and share information in over 90 per cent of cases they default to phone calls, email and face-to-face. Next, interestingly, was audio conferencing, used by 49 per cent of the respondents to the Forrester survey. Of all these techniques, email was the most used.
The Citrix results were included in a presentation given to a Reflex Technology Day last year by Tim Price-Walker from More Productive Working Spaces, who explained other legacy aspects of the communication problem.
The top three technologies used for collaboration in meetings, he discovered, were flip charts (used in 80 per cent of cases), writing up minutes after the meeting and dry whiteboards.
Front line experiences
In just 12 months the market has moved on, and integrators’ experiences are already proof that there is real traction in collaborative communications and that it’s not just a marketing concept.
“We are definitely seeing a significant rise in the number of users who want to invest in collaborative communications,” says Darren Pitt, Saville AV’s southern region head of business services. “Our business in this sector is up around 80 per cent year on year (2012 over 2011) and we are seeing more and more corporates from a wide spectrum of business sectors investing.
“Collaboration is being seen as much more than just extended conferencing and presentations. Companies are starting to build a process around how they use this technology and the environments they put it in to (and) the collaboration tools that are available today are being seen as a real alternative to conferencing.”
However, there’s no doubt that clients’ needs vary very widely, as Reflex md Roland Dreesden explains: “Our interpretation of the phrase ‘collaborative communications’ is the use of technology to increase the ability for people to share and discuss information, both locally and/or remotely.
But there is a whole spectrum of different needs which range from simple systems used to share a computer desktop whilst sitting around a table, through to full blown presentation or workshop interactivity, accessed from remote locations. So we have to help clients identify their particular need,” adds Dreesden.
According to Daniel Victory, GV Multimedia’s national technical manager: “The trend is definitely away from the traditional. Almost every project we are involved with (now) features some aspect of collaborative technology, but the formats are quite varied in terms of approach, scale and application – ranging from video conference meeting spaces through to whole-building connectivity.
“Even lecture theatres are now being adapted to allow for cluster groups with connectivity so that local work can be pushed up to the displays. Working to improve productivity and peer learning is definitely the new go-to direction for audio visual deployments.”
And these deployments are very different to standard VC or presentation rooms, as Victory explains: “One of the more interesting projects we’ve been involved in involves a room loaded with ten, 65in variable-height touchtables running custom software that allows each to be used simultaneously by four users whilst also being able to share content table to table across the network. Each of these could also be routed to one or all of ten 60in displays on the wall for ‘show and tell’ purposes.”
Another is a new building in which all of the meeting rooms and a core ‘Sandpit’ area are interconnected via a 32×32 Crestron DigitalMedia matrix enabling content to be routed from anywhere to anywhere, including to a Polycom HDX VC codec and Mediasite rich media capture and streaming system to facilitate linking content with external users.
It’s this kind of multi-input device that’s being used most, says Pure AV director Alan Marshall. “We are predominantly in the education market, so the driving factor appears to be peer learning, and we are designing rooms specifically for a mix of small group, larger group and whole-room collaboration using a mix of technologies which include multi-touch large screen displays on trolleys, that are adjustable for angle and height, with interactive boards and interactive pads linked to large screen displays.”
But, there’s still a lot of VC-related work going on.
“Companies’ video conferencing strategy is being extended to include desktop and dedicated collaboration or multi-tasking rooms,” says Anwar Osman, group md of Foresight AV. “This has been helped by the rise in use of interactive LCD screens, which double up well.
Collaboration is an extension to data sharing facilities. Companies have been using software such as WebEx for years and now the expectation is that it will form a more structured part of their collaboration strategy.”
At this stage of the concept’s development it is understandable that not all client companies really ‘get it’, so there’s still a lot of work for the integrators to do.
“Sometimes it’s all a bit too generic,” says Feltech sales manager, Nevil Bounds. “The phone rings and the client says: ‘We’ve got to have a collaborative system for sharing ideas and being more productive’. We then ask: ‘What kind of collaboration are you looking for and what are you trying to achieve?’ ‘Well, you know, collaborative,’ says the client, ‘just like they have in the US office – lots of sharing spreadsheets, graphs and freehand annotations.’
“It’s a bit like people in the old days saying ‘we need a Barco’. No one has thought about what is going to drive it, never mind what content needs to be produced,” concludes Bounds.
There is another challenge in wait for integrators – users are already finding that installing collaborative environments are having an effect on their AV support requirements.
“The drive towards self-service rooms and allowing people to use tablets or smart phones is creating more AV usage within organisations,” says Peter Rugg of AV Connect UK. “We are seeing banks put in media ‘benches’ so that people can plug in their devices and work collaboratively, and they are having to employ extra technicians to cope with that demand.”
Support suppliers are also having to help the user adoption process, says Impact managed services director, Terry Wilson. “Interactive whiteboards, for example, are often just used as copyboards and are under-used, so we are working with companies’ HR or marketing departments to help them enable their part of the business.”
This mix of support demands and the need to analyse user requirements is reminiscent of IT methodology.
Polycom, for example, has joined the party with a five stage “adoption methodology (for) creating a collaboration culture” – plan, optimise, educate, promote, support and measure. In the collaboration sector, these words should be engraved on a series of stepping stones.