USAID shrinks globe

The trouble with calling a meeting of employees scattered around the globe

is, well, that they're scattered around the globe.

For the U.S. Agency for International Development, which manages U.S.

foreign economic and humanitarian assistance programs, a 1998 workshop in

Cairo, Egypt, drew only 35 people.

But a month-long virtual conference held this year drew 133 participants

from 25 countries, including Namibia, Uganda, Cambodia, Peru and Nicaragua.

The second meeting was held using an Internet-based conferencing service

from Caucus Systems Inc., Arlington, Va.

"If you're looking to do a [program] review or develop a new project

and want to work with a cooperating agency out in the field, [the virtual

conference] gives you the opportunity to bring everyone together in a forum,"

said Jessica Guerrero, a regional assistant for USAID in Washington, D.C.

Participants can be brought together without incurring travel costs

or taking significant time away from field locations — a plus for offices

with tight budgets. For USAID, the savings was sig-nificant because Caucus

hosted the conference as a free test, Guerrero said.

The virtual forum, held Jan. 24 to Feb. 25, permitted typed exchanges

and conversations among people who would usually have difficulty communicating

because of the difference in time zones and their distance from each other,

she said.

A field official or cooperating agency dealing with procurement issues,

for example, could log on to the workshop and take part in discussions about

that subject. It also gave far-flung officials the chance to find quick

answers to questions, Guerrero said.

Online Dialogue

Because slide and audio presentations and discussion boards were available

24 hours a day, people could connect to the conference or workshop at any

time and have the sense they were participating in real time, she said.

"What we have is an online conversation space that we created in collaboration

with folks from USAID," said Starla King, Caucus's project manager for the

conference. Within that space, she said, participants may follow several

topics and interact with other participants, not only using text but also

by uploading and downloading documents, listening to audio feeds and exchanging

e-mail, she said.

"We talked it through [with USAID officials] from beginning to end.

We said, "Here's the technology. What are your needs?' And we incorporated

those [needs] into the design of space these people were going to work and

play in over the next month," King said.

Cyberspace doesn't limit the number of participants in a meeting the

way a meeting room does. In February, Caucus hosted IBM Corp.'s first-ever

virtual sales conference, bringing together 2,500 company employees and

business partners worldwide, King said.

"We can host as many [people] as we need because we can add more servers"

to increase capacity, King said.

Kurt Nguyen, vice president of marketing for Caucus, said the participants'

"only requirement was a desktop, a laptop, a modem and an Internet connection.

Some people connected to the conference using PCs set up in Internet cafes."

The company modeled its virtual conferencing on real-world meetings.

Central to the event were topics led by one or more managing participants

trained by Caucus to be cyberhosts.

USAID opted to try virtual conferencing after hearing from one of its

contract companies, John Snow Inc. Snow, which works with USAID's family

planning logistics management program, had previously contracted with Caucus

for an internal workshop, said Bill Felling, vice president for the company.

Felling said the company's experience with the virtual workshop "led

us to believe it would be a useful tool for [USAID] to use."

Although Caucus declined to reveal actual customer charges, Nguyen claimed

the cost of putting on a virtual conference is roughly 20 percent of running

a real-world conference.

Nguyen said the average cost for an individual traveling within the

United States to attend a three-day conference is about $1,500. That includes

travel and accommodations, but not the cost of the event. The average cost

for someone to travel internationally for such a conference is $4,000 to

$5,000, he said.

A virtual conference also can be organized in six to eight weeks, compared

with six to eight months for a face-to-face event. Also, all of the aspects

of a virtual conference, including committee discussions and questions and

answers, are documented for later recall.Related links

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