Economic conditions are driving business and IT strategists to pursue options that will reduce and/or avoid costs. Web conferencing is one of those technologies that comes to the forefront of options decision makers often consider during hard times. Having covered the topic for over a decade, I've seen use of web conferencing grow incrementally over the years and then surge forward during a time of crisis (e.g., epidemics, acts of terrorism, economic downturns). However, once things return to "normal", the increased use of web conferencing within the enterprise tends to go down - not all the way back to its original level - but use does seem to recede once the crisis has passed.
Why hasn't web conferencing taken off like e-mail and other communication and collaboration tools?
Certainly there are examples of specific applications where web conferencing has seen tremendous success: marketing webinars, virtual classrooms, and in certain custom service scenarios. But the technology is not nearly as mainstream in terms of everyday use by the vast majority of workers as email, the telephone and other tools.
If I were to layout the top technology-related issues holding back web conferencing from becoming a broad-based, everyday solution, the following come to mind:
- Poor usability (none of these tools are a joy to use by the average person)
- Inflexible and/or complicated licensing models
- Gaps in vendor capabilities - especially the level of integration/interoperability across conferencing functions and media services (voice, video, and data)
- Note: This item would lead to a conversation on unified communications
But technology per se if only part of the reason why web conferencing has not seen greater success. Even if we were to fix the above items, I'm not convinced it would lead to significant uptake in organizations for the the following reasons:
- People have pre-existing options to share information and collaborate (i.e., e-mail, face-to-face meetings, instant messaging, telephone, workspaces)
- Web conferencing introduces another tool and another choice people need to think about
- The positioning of web conferencing as a situational response to the crisis creates the perception that it is a temporary tactic
- Once restrictions and policies that promoted web conferencing (e.g., travel) are relaxed, people revert to old ways of working
Changing people's behaviors and ways of working in a manner that is sustained over time brings us to the issue of "adoption vs. deployment". Rather than stop after a web conferencing system is rolled out (as many organizations do with a variety of technologies), I would recommend some additional steps that focus on building and sustaining adoption over time:
- Make design and user experience a continuous post-deployment activity
- Customize the web conferencing system if possible and integrate the tool within existing applications where needed
- Observe and interview end-users on a regular basis and make adjustments to the system and supporting services (e.g., training, help desk)
- Include examples beyond meetings and classrooms - outline where web conferencing is used "in flow" of a business activity
- Keep the guidelines practical so that people understand them (don't make them academic)
- Socialize how everyday work is being improved by having local advocates tell their stories in a visible manner
- Gain management sponsorship and buy-in to the notion that employees can co-create new work models that fit enterprise needs
- Consider supporting tools (e.g., a wiki, social network site) that allow end-users to share what works, what does not work, best practices, and gaps