I attended a couple of afternoon sessions before flying home today. One session talked about basic issues in implementing the virtual workforce. I was a bit frustrated because the two speakers, both associated with consulting businesses in the collaborative arena and both with backgrounds in formal psychology, presented facts and sound bites without ever expressing a point of view. It must be significant that while virtual work arrangements are growing at many companies, HP has scrapped their home-worker program and brought their employees back into a traditional office environment. Yet this was briefly mentioned as a throwaway factoid and never discussed again.
But on a more positive note, there were some ideas that definitely resonated. David Coleman pointed out that most new users of conferencing products come to the table with a specific problem or application and don't think about growth and additional potential uses of the technology. As a matter of fact, it's usually a business-side inquiry that doesn't take technology into account at all. They want a fast magic bullet solution to the immediate problem. I would agree with this scenario in many cases I have seen. David said the business unit will typically approach the purchase decision with two clear criteria... has a direct competitor in the same industry already validated the product by using it for the same purpose under consideration (the famous "evaluation by three customer references" case)? And how cheap is it? This is a pity, as it fosters point solutions in the purchasing company that may compete with each other, it eliminates opportunities for enterprise cost savings through economies of scale, and it buries proactive planning for innovative use ("We'll use it for this one meeting and then shelve the software").
David also presented an intriguing idea that software products are now starting to be "designed" by the customer instead of the vendor. Vendors can offer multiple modules and options that can be purchased, configured, and integrated in unique ways by different customers. Macromedia Breeze springs to my mind with its functional pods that can be added, deleted, moved and resized by each customer to form a unique graphical user interface suited to their needs and preferences.
Jim Ware pointed out that when most people think about technologies, they tend to assume in "straight lines." The assumption that things will keep going in the direction you currently perceive them is common and almost invariably wrong. Early technology introductions may be lacking in features, or sophistication, or real world applicability. So people assume they will stay marginalized. Then if the technical adoption starts to grow, people assume it will keep growing, ignoring an inevitable maturity and saturation level-off. Once that happens, people assume there is no room for innovation and growth in that space (until the original vendor or a competitor starts the cycle again).
The second session was much more technically oriented, with implementation managers from Genzyme, Lehman Brothers, and Boston University talking about their experiences bringing virtual communications to the work force. Both of the first two companies mentioned above were spurred directly and tragically to implement more remote communications, work arrangements, and facility relocations by the events of September 11, 2001. Genzyme saw a tremendous increase in usage of virtual communications when they moved their primary platform from conference rooms with video conference setups down to PC-based web conferencing (Genzyme happened to use WebEx). The manager from Lehman was much more concerned with the ability to deliver high-end professional video communications with high reliability and quality. He was not a big fan of webcams and PC-based web conferencing, instead opting for professional video production studios onsite. Different solutions for different purposes (and I would venture to guess, very different budgets!)
That's about it for my coverage of this year's conference. I found it an interesting and valuable look at both the technology and applications of unified communications. Vendors both large and small are riding the combined collaboration wave and bringing together telephone communications, web conferencing, data sharing, and workforce management. I hope you got a little sense from these notes of some of the action at the show.