Decision Support: Successful Web conferencing

Effectively managing your Web conferences is as important as the technology you use to implement them

By Howard Millman

In a lukewarm economy, Web conferencing is particularly enticing. It can cut travel costs, save time, and increase collaboration among remote colleagues—but only if people use it.

Avoid the scenario that many companies have faced—a Web conferencing system collecting dust—by being prepared to change the way people communicate. To keep your virtual meetings from running amok, you need an effective moderator. And your moderator will need the right tools.

CNET and TechRepublic
This article first appeared on CNET's Enterprise Business site. TechRepublic is part of the CNET family of Web sites dedicated to educating and empowering people and businesses in the IT field.

ASPs vs. software
The good news is that Web conferencing products from application service providers (ASPs) such as WebEx, PlaceWare, Astound, and DigitalSpace—which offers some dramatic 3-D effects in its virtual meetings—are reliable, secure, scalable, and affordable. Costs range from $10 to $30 per user, per hour. Some services, such as WebEx, charge by the minute.

Other service providers offer a fixed monthly fee based on the number of seats or total usage. Generally, fixed-fee plans provide more, and sometimes even unlimited, usage. You can expect to pay anywhere from $500 to $2,000 per month for about 50 seats (about $10 to $40 per user), which is still a whole lot cheaper than a room at the Marriott. Beyond 50 or so users, it may be less expensive to purchase a system and deploy it on your network.

Using an ASP has one distinct advantage over purchasing software: You don't pay up front to use the service. An ASP also minimizes the likelihood of incompatible software, because the application is mounted on a remote server. What's more, the ASP assumes full responsibility for the upkeep of the application at its site. Of course, before you sign a service agreement, you should take a test-drive with one of the free trials that most vendors offer.

The primary disadvantage of using an ASP is that you have to send sensitive data and discussions outside your intranet. In addition, overall performance may be slower, especially for remote users who may be using dial-up access. Encrypting and encapsulating data could drag down performance even more.

Software products
Software products cost anywhere from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars, depending on the number of users and features. Usage is free as long as you use your own point-to-point tunneling, encryption, or encapsulation processes. You tend to get what you pay for. For example, Microsoft's free NetMeeting utility, bundled with Windows, is best suited for teens who exchange grainy pictures with one another. That's because NetMeeting is slow, crashes some firewalls, and gets hung up in others.

Lotus Sametime and Microsoft Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server both offer a full range of conferencing tools such as application sharing, whiteboarding/annotation, audio (voice over IP or telephone), video, chat (public and private), information on attendees, anonymous voting, and tool-availability control for moderators. Lotus prices Sametime at $27 per seat, with volume discounts available. Microsoft Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server costs about $4,000, plus a per-seat cost of $67, and requires Microsoft Exchange, which also costs about $4,000.

Security and scalability
For the money, you get an affordable communication conduit that, as long as you take proper precautions, will allow you to communicate securely with colleagues, partners, and customers.

The security precautions you need to take are about the same with ASPs and in-house systems, provided that participants follow minimal security guidelines, such as not letting the application save passwords and not writing down passwords at their desks.

Security could be a greater concern if you use your in-house system to communicate with key partners and customers beyond the firewall. In that extended extranet configuration, you would want to create a virtual private network over leased lines or use tunneling, encryption, or encapsulation to protect sensitive data. ASPs are somewhat better equipped for remote collaboration, since that is the basis of their service model.

Scalability is a relatively minor concern with both ASPs and packaged software. Most services and software products offer practically unlimited capacity for simultaneous conferences as well as for the number of participants. For example, PlaceWare Web Conferencing hosts an unlimited number of conferences, with up to 2,500 participants. Soft Bicycle claims that its Consensus AnyWare hosted service can handle an unlimited number of simultaneous discussions and users. Scalability is ordinarily not an issue unless you use the application to broadcast a message to thousands of people.

Considering the surprisingly similar features of ASPs and packaged software, you should choose an application based on the kind of interaction you expect between the moderator and the other attendees. For example, if you intend to use the application for multipoint team building, information sharing, and problem solving, you want an application that offers annotation, calendaring, and schedule management. The latter two features will help moderators schedule the time for the meetings, verify the availability of the participants, and create an agenda.

If your model involves a passive audience—for example, if you’re making a presentation to a client or colleagues—you need simpler tools such as public or private text chat or an instant messenger and perhaps file transfer.

That's the conferencing model of Liggett-Stashower, a Cleveland-based advertising agency that uses Lotus Sametime to communicate with its clients. Laura Jenson, vice president of information systems, acknowledges that it took time for her company to maximize its success with Sametime and to save the anticipated time and money. "Online collaboration is very different than real-world meetings. Online, you must be fully prepared and organized," she advised. "Have all your files available and let the moderators decide how to run the meeting. Never force the technology on anyone. Let them come to it in their own time."

People make the difference
When Web conferencing systems don't reach their full potential, it's likely because the participants aren't sharing information, not because the technology has failed.

According to the experts, communicating online both improves and depersonalizes communication. Take e-mail; it's a killer app because it's easy to use. But studies also show that people use it to avoid speaking with someone, especially if the message is in any way unpleasant.

"The vast majority of virtual communication projects I have studied follow a definite pattern," said Tom Sudman, CEO of Knoxville, TN-based DigitalAV, a consulting firm that specializes in virtual business processes. "In the first 30 to 45 days, the team members share a great degree of excitement and a heightened commitment to the technology and the project. After 60 days, you will see the participants gradually starting to lose interest in joining the conversations." Around three months after the team is formed, said Sudman, most people stop responding to calls for meetings and the system becomes more of a relic than a productivity tool.

But with a better understanding of some potential pitfalls, you can increase the odds of success for your online collaboration initiative.

"Make online conversations similar to and as natural as real-world conversations, only more efficient," said Steve Londergan, Lotus Sametime's technical manager. "Keep things moving to maintain the interest. Take advantage of all of the technology's visual and multimedia features such as audio, images, video, even music."

To counteract the tendency of some members to commandeer the meeting, Londergan recommends that companies develop a manual outlining expected and inappropriate online behavior.

The solution is not to try to quell intellectual conflict but to manage it. That requires a full-time moderator so online discussions stay on course and don't overburden the network. You should strive to use a single moderator. Large meetings with considerable interaction might require two.

Manage your meetings
One way a moderator can keep the data flowing is by limiting the bandwidth available to individual users. For example, the moderator (who controls the availability of features) can offer video and higher-quality audio to key executives and limit other participants to lower-quality transmissions and fewer features.

For a moderator to make a Web conference a cooperative exchange of quality knowledge, he or she must overcome two primary obstacles, according to Mary Boone, author of Interactive Management and president of Boone Associates, a management consulting firm in Norwalk, CT.

"The number one issue is recognizing that people resist change," said Boone. "You need to make it clear at a visceral level how the technology you have adopted will help the users to achieve their own, and the project's, goals sooner."

Boone said you have to rethink what makes online communication work. "Start out by thinking not about what you want to say but its effect on the other participants in the virtual meeting. For example, don't burden the other team members by sending broadcast messages." She implies that others will recognize it as a self-serving tactic that diminishes the value of the meeting.

Here, too, technology has the answers, and it's up to the moderator to apply them. The key is using personalization to make all participants part of the collaborative process. Text chats can encourage reticent employees to speak their mind. Chat, sometimes called instant messaging or pop-up messaging, can be broadcast to all attendees or directed to specific participants.

With these tools, you can create affordable online collaboration. After learning how best to do it, the rest is comparatively simple, said Sudman. In most cases, he said, you'll end up with better collaboration than occurs in actual meetings. If you can keep people interested, develop effective procedures, and assign an efficient moderator, you can prove him right.

Howard Millman, a writer and computer technology consultant based in Croton, NY, contributes regularly to CNET Enterprise and helps make computers behave. For more about Howard, click here.

This document was originally published by CNET on July 16, 2001.

Web conferencing vs. the face-to-face meeting
Many Web conferencing advocates envision a future in which teleconferencing is as effective as the face-to-face meeting. What do you think? Will electronic conferencing ever become the preferred meeting method? Would you accept a job having met your employer only via a Web conference? Would you feel comfortable speaking to your clients through only a Web conference? Post a comment and let us know how you feel.


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