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Could virtual meetings replace conferences in sequestration age?

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Could videoconferencing supplant traditional conferences as budgets contract? (Stock image)

Sequestration and reduced budgets for the vast majority of federal agencies have forced many to restrict travel and eliminate out-of-town conferences, so a growing number are substituting in-person collaboration with a virtualized environment instead.

In recent months, the number of federal employees at various agencies participating in web conferencing has surged, particularly in the Department of Defense.

Barry Leffew, vice president of Adobe's public sector, said the number of registered users for Defense Connect Online, a web conferencing and real-time internal collaboration platform that Adobe and Carahsoft Technology provide for DOD, has increased from 600,000 to more than 840,000 in the last year alone.

Defense Connect Online has been available to DOD employees and contractors for five years, yet it's never experienced a jump like this, he said.

"Agencies have had to eliminate travel, and we've seen a widespread elimination of conferences and off-site meetings, but it's still very important to collaborate and share information," Leffew said. "If you can't go and meet in person, the other option is a phone call and that's just voice – it's not real collaboration. With a web conferencing tool, you're able to have rich media and share documents from almost any device. That's collaboration."

Leffew said the number of feds using his firm's web conferencing solution has increased significantly over the past six months at more than 20 federal agencies, both in presentation-style formats where most participants are simply receiving information and in collaborative work groups that typically have 15 to 25 participants with voice, webcam and desktop-sharing capabilities.

Local-area "in person" gatherings are still generally allowed for government employees, but sequestration has raised the bar for almost any event that requires travel. NASA, for example, recently implemented new rules that forbid all but the most mission-critical conferences if they are further than a Metro ride away. These restrictions come on top of a May 2012 Office of Management and Budget memo promoting efficient agency travel spending.

The U.S. Navy Safety Center held its 21st annual U.S. Navy Safety Professional Development Conference (PDC) in March, but for the first time, the "mission critical conference" – providing approximately 80 training sources and expert information from another 80 speakers – was held in a virtual environment after sequestration derailed the destination conference originally scheduled to take place in San Diego, Calif.

In a matter of weeks, the virtual conference was organized to the satisfaction of more than 90 percent of the 2,019 attending participants from as far as Germany and Guam, and $1.5 million in travel expenses were reduced to less than $100,000 in operational expenses.

Most of the training courses transferred well to the online environment, said Gregory Cook, Commanding Officer for the Naval Safety & Environmental Training Center The virtual conference put on more than 50 courses, workshops and breakout sessions, though some hands-on demonstrations didn't make sense to attempt in a virtual environment.

Cook said he and his team put a big emphasis on participant engagement, giving participants similar familiarity to the traditional PDCs held alternately in San Diego or Norfolk, Va.

"In order to do that, we had to look at the seminars we were offering and trim away the ones that wouldn't translate well online," Cook said. "Our strategy was to have the same look and feel as our brick and mortar conferences, and really focus well on user engagement."

Cook said his team created the template for each seminar room and included within them chat pods that would fill up with hundreds of comments, helping drive each segment. The PDC's 80 speakers were given a crash course in virtual conferencing by moderators and asked to use polling questions in their presentations to build audience engagement, resulting in interactive experiences that Cook said you sometimes don't see in traditional conferences. Participants did miss the face time though, Cook said, and the social interaction that typically follows a traditional event.

"The technology is there to do it, we can bring the conference to individuals with existing technology even with some constraints," Cook said. "The key to being successful is you've got to connect participants to make them feel like they are really part of a conference. I don't think it's the solution for every conference, but for conferences like ours that are primarily around training, I think it works very well."

Not all agencies have been quick to embrace the technology, however. The Mobile Work Exchange's September 2012 report on government videoconferencing found that only 36 percent of federal employees use the technology. At the Interior Department, for example, negative experiences with older teleconferencing equipment, a lack of knowledge within the agency on the availability of the tools and low motivation for using them were cited as reasons why the technology was not being fully used.

Mobile Work Exchange General Manager Cindy Auten said sequestration and a series of recent canceled events are driving federal employees "to be creative in how they connect and exchange information." Before sequestration, agencies received pressure to cut costs and encourage efficient spending on tools like video technology to support collaboration through Executive Order 13589. Sequestration has simply amplified that pressure.

"We are seeing more interest in video conferencing to support much-needed training and connecting face to face," Auten said. "It saves on travel, is readily available, and easier to use – now more than ever."

Cisco, another leading provider of web conferencing solutions, has seen its federal customers increasingly turn to video conferencing as well, though the full effects of sequestration and travel restrictions remain unclear.

"The effects of sequestration still remain to be seen, however, we have seen a significant increase over the past few years of federal customers adopting video conferencing and telepresence as a proactive solution to the reduce travel costs constraints," said Matt Mandrgoc, director of Public Sector Collaboration at Cisco.

The company itself has saved more than $1 billion – mostly on airfare and hotel charges – by using its TelePresence technology to host meetings.

"As budgets get tighter, more agencies are investing in technology that will help them save," Mandrgoc said. "Video is a great example of this."

Former FCW staff writer Camille Tuutti contributed to this report.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

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