Boost collaboration in between your “Most Important Meetings”

Part II: Moving the needle of collaboration in your organization

In the first part of this blog, I talked about the “Most Important Meeting” and how you can:

  1. Incrementally improve the meeting by taking small steps to collaborate better – some incremental things are foolproof and cost nothing
  2. Make a bigger change by adding something that you aren’t doing today.  Don’t be afraid of bigger steps – the benefits certainly outweigh the costs.
  3. Plan to learn from every step you take

Those activities were collectively the first step to better collaboration in your department or business.

If we dial back the time machine a little, the majority of “Most Important Meetings” which had remote participants were audio conference calls.

When conferencing tools like WebEx, and GoToMeeting came to market, meeting participants from different locations were able to share content parallel to the audio conference.  These conferencing tools have continued to evolve by adding voice (instead of a parallel call) as well as video and some interactive annotation. They have allowed the “Most Important Meeting” to evolve from a “voice only” conference, to a “voice + content + video + annotation” meeting.

The increased conferencing technologies capability leads to a richer meeting experience for all participants – see this blog for more on increasing the richness of experience.

But I also stated that, even though it is important to have better collaboration in your “Most Important Meeting,” you can increase collaboration much more significantly by injecting a higher level of collaboration into the team activities that happen in between the “Most Important Meetings”.

Step 2: Team activities between the most important meetings

A lot more time and work effort is spent in between “Most Important Meetings” than having “Most Important Meetings”.  So it stands to reason that if you can enable greater collaboration during the interaction between your team members for the work they do between meetings, you will be significantly accelerating collaboration in your organization.

Going from a collaborative crawl to a walk – remember the Crawl-Walk-Run (C-W-R) analogy from the last blog.

But, WebEx or GoToMeeting, as good as they are for meetings, are not the ideal tools for day-to-day collaboration between team members.

Why not?

Because they are tools that are designed for meetings. That is the strength of these tools – to facilitate meetings.  All different kinds of meetings in WebEx’s case.

Meeting tools are:

To move collaboration to the day-to-day interactions of your team members, you need to move from tools that are designed for meetings, to tools that are designed for ad hoc collaboration, i.e. Unified Communication (UC) tools.

GoToMeeting and WebEx don’t allow for ad hoc collaboration.  They don’t have Presence, IM (Instant Messaging – outside of the chat function they enable in a meeting) or ad hoc voice or video calling.   WebEx/GoToMeeting technology is designed for a meeting, not as a communication platform that supports day-to-day business.

A good UC platform like Jabber or Lync incorporates technology within it to facilitate meetings.  It is one platform for all the real-time collaboration done within the organization. UC is the central piece of any Corporate Communications Framework, but if you are trying to move from a collaborative Crawl to a Walk, then don’t let the architecting of a framework slow you down.  You are better off getting to a Walk by trying to walk versus planning on walking.

If you have a phone system already (a PBX), one way to move forward is to build on the phone system.  But this will typically mean an upgrade of some sort if your phone system is more than a couple years old and it will mean you have to get more people involved in the decision.  It is harder to start walking that way.  The other thing that is noteworthy about the PBX is that with all the other tools available for real-time communications, the PBX just isn’t as important anymore and you shouldn’t continue to invest in it unless it ties in with your overall communications framework.  See this blog by Marty Parker of UC Strategies – “How to Carve a PBX”.

Many people use Skype or other free consumer products for person-to-person interaction and they can work well – see this blog.  But sometimes Skype is not reliable enough or scalable enough for your organization.  Most people realize that when they start spending too much time managing the technology and not enough time focused on the business at hand, they aren’t saving anything by using free tools.  When that happens you have to move up to higher quality UC tools that can provide a richer collaborative experience, e.g. Cisco’s Jabber, Microsoft’s Lync or another commercial UC solution.

The key to person-to-person collaboration

Whether you are using Skype or a more robust UC solution, to accelerate person-to-person collaboration, the most important piece to get right is the personal technology that plugs into the call.

What do I mean by that?   Personal technology that enhances the audio and video experience by:

  1. Eliminating audio feedback / interference and provide good audio quality so people can hear and be heard.  How?
    1. Use your iPhone/iPad or other ear buds plugged into your PC, tablet or mobile
    2. Add a USB personal audio device if you are working from a quiet place and don’t want to be tethered to a device.  Cost ~ $100 to $150
  2. Enhancing the visual experience by making the video and content BIG
    1. All you need is a 2nd screen connected to your laptop or desktop which costs around $120
  3. Maintaining a good connection for quality and continuity of the call.  Although a good connection is not “personal technology”, nothing disrupts a call more than fading in or out, or dropping the call and having to reconnect.  You need a stable connection.  This one is harder to put a price tag on, but there are different ways to come at the issue:
    1. Make sure you have lots of bandwidth and that normal bandwidth use by others on the same network isn’t choking your connection
    2. Use technology that is bandwidth friendly, e.g. uses less or is adaptable to bandwidth fluctuations

A personal audio device and a 2nd screen are the best investments you can make to significantly enhance person-to-person communication in your organization.  Make the experience richer and people will be able to collaborate better.

If you can enable the person-to-person collaboration in between the “Most Important Meeting” you will have taken your organization from a collaborative crawl to a strong walk.  And that is significant progress!  I have experienced this in our own organization and seen it in others.

The next 2 steps to get to a Run are:

I’ll talk more about these in my next blog.

Does Too Much Collaboration at Work Hurt Productivity?

Most Workers Struggle to Work Effectively.

According to the global architecture and design company, Gensler, who recently released their 2013 US Workplace Survey, most workers struggle to work effectively. A Toronto paper picked up the story with a headline stating, “Too much collaboration at work hurts productivity.” Does this mean that your organization should not strive for more collaboration?

No. It means that if you don’t strike the right balance, it can lead to unwanted and potentially negative results. Finding the right design for a collaboration workspace the right way is key to finding this equilibrium.

Getting it Wrong. Then Getting it Right.

Malcolm Gladwell illustrates an example of the advertising agency TBWAChiatDay in his New Yorker article Designs for Working. He cites, “The firm had been engaged in a radical, and in some ways disastrous, experiment with a “nonterritorial” office: no one had a desk or any office equipment of his own. It was a scheme that courted failure by neglecting all the ways in which an office is a sort of neighbourhood.

By contrast, their new office is an almost perfect embodiment of Jacobsian principles of community. The agency is in a huge old warehouse, three stories high and the size of three football fields. It is informally known as Advertising City, and that’s what it is: a kind of artfully constructed urban neighbourhood. … Sprinkled throughout the building are meeting rooms and project areas and plenty of nooks where employees can closet themselves when they need to.”

An Effective Balance Between Order and Chaos is Required.

Steve Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From”, comments on the TBWAChiatDay first new office.

“By all accounts it was a colossal failure, precisely because it traded excessive order for excessive chaos … To work in an open office is to work exclusively in public, which it turns out to have just as many drawbacks as working entirely in your private lab.”

The Concept of Liquid Networks for Getting the Right Balance.

Johnson’s book introduces the concept of “Liquid Networks” as a metaphor for the right balance.  Liquid, as opposed to gaseous or solid.  A gaseous network is too volatile, the chaos referred to above, and a solid network is too ridged to sustain idea flow.

Johnson cites the work of Kevin Dunbar, McGill University psychologist indicates, “Even with all the advanced technology of a leading molecular biology lab, the most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.  The lab meeting creates an environment where new combinations can occur, where information can spill over from one project to another.  When you work alone in an office, peering into a microscope, your ideas can get trapped in place, stuck in your own initial biases.  The social flow of the group conversation turns that private solid into a liquid network.”

Dunbar’s generative conference room meetings remind us that the physical architecture of our work environments can have a transformative effect on the quality of our ideas.

“The quickest way to freeze a liquid network is to stuff people into private offices behind closed doors, which is one reason so many Web-era companies have designed their work environments around common spaces where casual mingling and interdepartmental chatter happens without any formal planning.”

Back to the Gladwell article …

“But when employees sit chained to their desks, quietly and industriously going about their business, an office is not functioning as it should. That’s because innovation—the heart of the knowledge economy—is fundamentally social. Ideas arise as much out of casual conversations as they do out of formal meetings. More precisely, as one study after another has demonstrated, the best ideas in any workplace arise out of casual contacts among different groups within the same company.  [Johnson’s Liquid Network] …

Innovation comes from the interactions of people at a comfortable distance from one another, neither too close nor too far.  …

The catch is that getting people in an office to bump into people from another department is not so easy as it looks.”

Johnson says that,

“… if there is a single maxim through [his] book’s arguments, it is that we are better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them. … Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine.  They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders.  They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.”

Or, simply put – to be more innovative you have to be more collaborative.  You need to put yourself in a position where you are bumping into, colliding with and spilling into other people’s perspectives and ideas.  Because doing so will trigger new thoughts and ideas that you wouldn’t explore in isolation.

The Gensler study goes on to say that, “… focus and collaboration are complementary work modes. … We know that both focus and collaboration are crucial to the success of any organization in today’s economy.”  In a balanced workplace, the employees thrive.

4 Different Modes of Working.

A Steelcase white paper, “How the workplace can improve collaboration”, June 2010, talks about a shift in the nature of work from more individual focused to more collaboration focused.

“Among the key findings was validation that a fundamental shift has occurred: most work today is done in collaboration with others versus individually. Moreover, rather than it being a segmented activity done in designated destinations such as a conference room, collaboration

is now almost constant and it threads throughout the entire workday. It occurs at desks, in hallways, in team spaces, on smart phones and via the Internet, and it’s often spontaneous and informal versus planned in advance. When the workspace is designed to fully support the new realities of collaboration, better learning, more innovation and faster decision-making can result.”

The white paper goes on to say that its study has revealed that people actually need 4 different modes of working:

  1. Focus Time
  2. Collaboration Time
  3. Learning
  4. Socializing

The mix will depend on who you are and what you do.  The balance of the 4 modes will vary.

How do remote workers fit into this “Collaboration soup”?

Part 2, we explore whether being in the same physical space is critical to increasing collaboration.

If you would like further information on how to obtain the right balance of various working modes for your organization, please contact us.

5 Myths of Telepresence and What They Mean to Your Business

If you’re reading this, there is a good chance you have more than a passing interest in collaboration, video conferencing or telepresence. Confused? You’re not the only one. You can’t use search terms like collaboration, or telepresence without coming up against different definitions, methodologies or applications. You walk away from a search like that inevitably asking: “What’s the right definition?”

That is the problem with terms like collaboration and telepresence. They are broad and sweeping and you will be hard pressed to find many people who have the same definition. But that isn’t a bad thing.  Creating authentic communication and collaboration isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” industry.

5 Myths of Telepresence

Recently, Cisco published an article on their blog debunking five myths around telepresence. These myths are things that we, at ET Group, have come across time and time again when talking to clients. The Myths Cisco talks about are:

Myth #1. “It’s unaffordable and only for the enterprise”

Myth #2. “Web-based consumer services are good enough”

Myth #3. “Software vs. hardware”

Myth #4. “Telepresence is too complex to set up and use”

Myth #5. “The payback is limited to travel”

Debunking The Myths

Debunking the myths is important for three reasons:

  1. It gives existing telepresence users a way to gauge their investment.
  2. By putting the myths under the microscope readers can take stock of any preconceptions they might have.
  3. It helps people to make good decisions when developing a technology roadmap for the next five years.

Myth #1. “It’s Unaffordable and Only for the Enterprise”

I’m going to leave the telepresence ROI discussion to my peers. I’m going to focus on Myths 2-4 because they’re centered more on the technology involved behind the scenes and the user experience.

Myth #2. “Web-Based Consumer Services Are Good Enough”

In previous blog articles We’ve discussed the pros and cons of consumer grade services for your business Video Conference needs. Recently, Microsoft began folding its MSN messenger application and pushing those users towards their Skype platform. The only announcement which improves Skype’s business readiness as a result of this move is an improved mobile application. Mobility without security isn’t going to offer businesses a new experience with Skype. In fact, it would be my guess that the fanfare of the new Skype user base may impact performance with the sheer number of subscribers. Why do I say this? Skype and MSN have had high profile outages in the past due to congestion. It’s worth thinking about what would happen with their combined user bases.

Myth #3. “Software Vs. Hardware”

This question is at the heart of every video conferencing roadmap, and it feeds into three key questions:

  1. How do you want to collaborate? For an example read 3 Real-Life Solutions to Ensure Video Conferencing Adoption.
  2. Where do you want your teams to work? See a previous blog Do you Lack Meeting Room Space? Without Exception, Every Company or Agency I Speak with has This Problem.
  3. What can I leverage today, for tomorrow? Further discussed in the blog Conference Room Audio Visual Solutions are an Integral Part of a Well Executed UC&C Platform.

People often ask, how do I ‘future proof’ my investment? Do I go with a desktop client like Jabber, Lync, or Vidyo; or invest in an integrated boardroom solution? After we start discussing the three questions above, we often find that clients want to do both.

The reasons clients may wish to do both vary, but it boils down to one thing: In many telepresence deployments there is tremendous investment overlap in the requirements for mobile versus office deployments. Understanding this allows clients to prevent the conversation from starting as a “this or that” discussion and making it about workflows and where collaborative technologies can enhance productivity.

Myth #4. “Telepresence is too Complex to Set Up and Use”

I think that it is important to recognize the difference between complex, and flexible. Yes, there are many different ways that you can deploy telepresence. But, that’s true of your Phone System or PBX, and it’s just as true of your computing environment whether its Windows, Mac or Linux based. Options don’t inherently mean complexity, and anyone that tells you differently is avoiding the question.

Options mean that you have to take a very sober look at where your company’s deployment is starting from, and where you want to develop your collaborative ecosystem too in the next five years. But building the ecosystem is only half of the battle.

The other half of this myth is using telepresence; the user adoption of the technology. User adoption is a microcosm of how companies adopt new technologies. Most, will have a few highly evangelical adopters who will win over the office over a period of time. A few will adopt a technology and have it sit unused while they try to figure out what its business application will be. Rarely will everyone see the need to make a change and jump in with both feet. At its heart, user adoption is a battle of perception. Developing adoption comes down to three things, dispelling fears and doubts, kicking the tires, and users finding what’s in it for them.

What Will Telepresence Mean for Your Business?

A lot of what I’ve talked about, and Cisco’s blog post can be summed up into one question: What will Telepresence mean for your business?

If anything, this blog has shown you that there isn’t one-way to answer this question to satisfy everyone. The next time you go to search for collaboration or telepresence, instead of asking “What’s the right definition?”, ask yourself “How will my business define it?”

Cisco has done an excellent job of trying to dispel fears and doubts.  If you’re still stuck on the definition we at ET Group can help you with the rest.

Rule #1 for Video and Firewalls: Say NO to Helper Services

Video Conferencing and Firewalls

Firewalls are probably one of the biggest peace-of-mind purchases that an enterprise will make to ensure it’s secure from the outside world. More comprehensive firewalls offer a vast suite of tools and features to make the life of the administrator easier by automating as much of the process of security management as possible. When it comes to video conferencing technology, the lion’s share of firewall solutions are not as video friendly as the feature set suggests.

Today, many firewalls are equipped with things like SIP ALG or H.323 helper services, which the vendor suggests will allow clients to easily traverse the firewall and make a more seamless, more secure connection. The problem is that it’s rarely –if ever- the case. These services while helpful in theory, are often part of what is called Stateful Packet Inspection (SPI). SPI’s role in your protection is to open each bit of data passing in and out of your network to look for any threats and neutralize them before they cause any damage. This can cause significant performance problems for video conferencing.  Some firewalls can be “aware” or sensitive to the particulars of video conferencing protocol, although they also have some inherent risks, which need to be mitigated by your IT security policies.

What Does This All Mean? If it’s Not Fool Proof, Why Do it at All?

Every firewall is different and every enterprise uses their firewall differently. Hence, no two installations will be exactly the same. Because no two installations will be the same, firewall vendors have done quite a bit in recent years to provide the ability to turn off, or change the role of SPI and helper services on your firewall. Unfortunately in most cases, it isn’t enough. Video traffic passing through a firewall using helper services or SPI can severely lower performance because of the processing power required to monitor the traffic.

The other serious limitation of firewalls when it comes to video traffic and SPI is dynamic port allocation. All modern firewalls work very well against the model of fixed port allocation. In this model, the security admin defines what traffic on what port is allowed into and out of the network. As video and other business applications gain ground in network bandwidth usage this model becomes harder to maintain.

Video specifically requires very few fixed ports for connecting participants. It relies more heavily on dynamic port allocation, where a port or group of ports is chosen by the client to make a connection. Without a specific rule, most firewalls do not respond well to passing traffic through to allow this video connection. Ports used for video calls will fall within a set range as large as 10,000-20,000 possible port combinations and it’s a cumbersome undertaking to maintain. The firewall by design has to strike a balance between being porous and secure. Because that balance is required, video conferencing infrastructure has evolved to come up with ways of securely adapting to the needs of the network.

Two Ways to Handle the Firewall Question

There are two popular approaches to handling video traffic without compromising your network security. Video vendors understand that businesses want collaboration without compromising security, or network performance. With this in mind, two approaches have emerged to mitigate the risk to security and performance, and to provide the enterprise with peace-of-mind.

1. Larger Market Players take a Traversal Approach

They literally hop over the firewall, bypassing it with secured edge servers, or pass through it on a very limited range of open ports. This is a tried and true option utilized by large enterprises. It offers the greatest scalability and flexibility. IT Administrators prefer these solutions because they are designed with security policy in mind, resulting in an easy solution for the security minded to get behind.

2. Up and Coming Vendors Leverage Existing Infrastructure

Vendors can still offer rich experiences for their end users by leveraging existing infrastructure from the DMZ or the cloud. Depending on the deployment scenario, these solutions can require anywhere from 100 to as few as 0 ports.  In fact, they can even be offered as cloud services almost removing your corporate firewall from the equation. They are mobile focused, sleek, stylish and their flexibility makes them a sexy option for the “Bring Your Own Device” crowd.

Firewalls are not the only ‘helpers’ that can come into contact with your video conferencing traffic. At their core, WAN optimization technologies try to apply some kind of order to your public traffic. Their greatest advantage is that IT staff will already be familiar with the idea of Quality of Service (QoS). They will also be familiar with traffic shaping, which is fundamentally what these tools accomplish albeit on the open Internet instead of your corporate network.

These are relevant to a firewall discussion because unlike firewall helpers, WAN optimizers are generally very media sensitive tools. They are geared to improve your experience with video conferencing, but can also work to your advantage on other lines of business applications as well. Regardless of the vendor and the way it’s deployed, all video conferencing solutions eventually come back to the firewall.

Things to Consider Before Deploying Video Conferencing

1. Make Sure You Know What Your Firewall Vendor Supports and Their Limitations

2. Most Importantly, Discuss the Implications of Video Conferencing with an Integrator Before Deploying Video Conferencing to Your Users.

Having these two on your strategy checklist will be the difference between a rich pervasive collaborative experience and a pixelated game of charades.

If you have any questions concerning what your firewall vendor supports and the possible implications of your video conferencing system, please contact us.