Videoconferencing comes of age
A recent virtual summit at NASA is just one example of how federal agencies are discovering a multitude of new ways to leverage the diverse capabilities of video, whether with handheld devices or high-definition telepresence technology.
In October 2012, NASA held an executive summit that involved hundreds of agency employees from all around the country meeting throughout the month. The summit, which involved extensive planning and coordination, might have been derailed when Hurricane Sandy struck the mid-Atlantic and shut down NASA headquarters, if not for one factor: It was a virtual summit.
NASA officials accessed summit events through the agency’s HR portal, where they could view and comment on video presentations. They could also participate in live online sessions and attend one-day events at their own centers. The virtual format gave NASA executives the opportunity to connect with one another in a way not always possible in a traditional conference.
“Executives could network with their peers, pose questions to the knowledgeable virtual community, share ideas, and interact with senior leadership on challenging issues,” according to an article in “IT Talk,” a newsletter published by NASA’s Office of the CIO. And along the way the agency saved about $750,000 in travel expenses, the article states.
The executive summit was a more ambitious use of videoconferencing than most agencies are likely to attempt. Nonetheless, the event highlights the benefits of videoconferencing that are making it of heightened interest across government as agencies migrate to a unified communications (UC) infrastructure.
Cost savings, of course, is a big one. Videoconferencing makes it possible for employees to collaborate with one another or with partner organizations without all the expense that comes with business travel. On the one hand, that means agencies can save money on trips that otherwise would have been necessary.
On the other hand, it means that agencies can facilitate collaboration that, because of the expense involved, might not be possible otherwise. That might be a more difficult return on investment (ROI) to calculate, but it’s real nonetheless. Just think about the NASA event.
Because the event was virtual, the agency could organize meetings and information exchanges across the entire month without taking anyone out of pocket for an extended period of time.
When it comes to enabling collaboration, videoconferencing provides agencies with the kind of agility they have never had before. They can arrange for meetings using high-definition telepresence technology or they can let employees collaborate on the fly using Web-based videoconferencing.
The importance of video to collaboration is just a matter of human nature, experts say. When employees need to share information or documents, email might be sufficient. But when they need to work together to tackle problems or manage projects, nothing beats face-to-face communications.
Videoconferencing “adds the visual element to real-time communications — conveying the eye contact, body language, emotional signs, and other non-verbal clues that we humans have evolved to decode for millennia,” wrote Andrew Borg, research director for mobility and collaboration at the Aberdeen Group, in a recent blog post.
Of course, the benefits of videoconferencing have been known for years. The difference now is the emergence of UC and collaboration solutions. Rather than serving as a stand-alone solution, videoconferencing increasingly is offered as part of a suite of applications.
“Integrating videoconferencing with new and existing desktop UC applications increases user comfort and ease of use, driving collaboration, productivity and ROI,” according to analysts at Frost and Sullivan in a recent white paper.
Following the success of the executive summit, NASA officials anticipate seeing increased interest in videoconferencing. “Just as important as the exchange of information, the Virtual Executive Summit provided an opportunity for executives to become more knowledgeable about the technology they were using and its potential for use in facilitating future meetings and events,” according to the “IT Talk” newsletter.