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The business benefit with the human touch

Videoconferencing, May 1996

A recurring theme in '60s sci-fi films is that no-one would have a phone call without seeing the person they were talking to, with perfect colour, sound and lip-synch. The problem with our current phone system, with just two copper wires, is that we are unlikely ever to be able to get enough data down the line to support video, without losing too much of the signal. Videoconferencing has been available for more than ten years now. Until recently, this meant booking time at a studio, due to the high cost of installing the special lines needed to cope with video. ISDN (the purpose-built integrated services data network) overcomes this by providing sufficient capacity to transmit instantaneous video images together with sound and data.

In this country, BT are the sole providers of ISDN-2 (one ISDN line containing two circuits). Mercury are only permitted to install ISDN lines in multiples of 30 circuits. You could use both ISDN-2 circuits for two different phone calls, e.g. one voice and one fax simultaneously, or use both of them to drive a video link. BT have brought out a range of atttractively priced videoconferencing products to connect to an ISDN-2 service. For the first time, this means you really can call up someone from your desktop, talk to them, and see them in full video at an acceptable level of quality and at a cost you may be able to justify.

Clive Gibbins, Operations Director at NOP explains: "Two years ago we established that videoconferencing would be an important communications medium both in the short term and in the future. Our experience over the last couple of years has proved us right with the BT equipment being used on a regular basis domestically and with increasing frequency on an international level.

"The United States is a market which we are very interested in and one which looks a great deal at Pan-European markets... In order to win business from the US we need to be able to act fast and communicate effectively with stateside clients. Videoconferencing fulfils two roles in this respect, not only allowing us to meet and communicate in a highly effective way without the need for time consuming and costly travel, but also demonstrating that NOP is completely up-to-date with modern communications technology. "Any product or service that enables us to save time or money, or delivers the competitive advantage that videoconferencing does, has to be considered an essential business tool." Gibbins concluded.

ISDN lines are more expensive to install than an ordinary exchange line. Currently each one costs £400 to connect, but after that, costs are similar to normal business tariff. BT claim you can use ISDN-2 videoconferenceing to save the chore of travelling to meetings, since you can hold the meeting at your desk, over the video link.

I decided I would put this to the test, and presented myself at NOP's London office to see how it worked. NOP use a BT desktop system, and have it set up in the corner of one of their offices. One of its major uses is for execs to carry out interviewer briefings with their Oxford CATI centre. We called up the centre, and I conducted my first interview for Research in video, when I spoke to Jenny Lyons, NOP's Operations Controller based at Oxford. She told me some of the advantages she saw. "It is nice to see who we are dealing with, and I believe it also helps the interviewers with the survey if they can see the exec they are dealing with. I think they feel more relaxed and comfortable, and do a better job as a result".

This is not surprising, since, as most linguists are aware, in a face-to-face conversation, as little as 20% of the communication which takes place verbally: the rest is non-verbal, which on the phone is lost. Personally, I was surprised just how much it did feel like a meeting, and how little it felt like a phone call.

Sue Bryant, Telephone Interviewing Services Director at NOP has made extensive use of the video facility. "It is £25 return to Oxford now, and briefings always seem to take place at peak time. Add the time it takes to get there, and you can see the savings are considerable. Our researchers no longer need to go to Oxford to do briefings. Even using it once a week to do the briefings for our Telebus survey it is beneficial. But internationally it is very important too". I asked her what difference it would make if they used a conference call on a normal phone. "With a large group of people, you are never sure who is speaking, so that slows everything down. With this you can see everyone taking part".

The Royal Bank of Scotland have been using videconferencing for the last ten years, and currently hold 2500 meetings a year in their purpose built studios. Alwyn James is managing editor of the bank's publications and is in no doubt of the benefits videoconferencing has brought. "We now see it as our main method of meeting", he told Research. "We now have 8 studios and very few people are not within walking distance of a studio. What justifies the cost are the high level meetings. You can calculate the cost of air fares and hotel bills, but it is the wear and tear on the individual and the time wasted in travelling to meetings which is harder to quantify. It is the unmeasurable costs that make it worthwhile."

Other benefits include the ability to hold meetings at very short notice, and the ease with which an individual can hold one or two major external meetings during the day without disrupting their normal work. I asked Alwyn James to compare it to his experiences with normal conference calls. "It is light years away from that - there is a feedback, a body language and a feeling of meeting that you just don't get with a conference call. One-to-one calls are OK, but once you click on that echo-chamber effect, there is a difference - people start to behave differently. It becomes unnatural."

The bank has deliberately operated a non-elitist policy with regard to their videoconferencing rooms. People can book time, if it is available, without having to justify it, and as a result, it is in use much of the time. "You can build up a rapport and a feeling of working together," he continued, "and you really do get the effect of being in the same room. I sometimes find myself in the slightly embarassing situation of meeting someone face to face and not being exactly sure if I have actually met them in the flesh before".

He pointed out another interesting benefit everyone has noticed: meetings become more disciplined. With only a limited time slot available, people concentrate on the matter in hand, actively seek conclusions and tend to hold over less for other meetings.

When the bank first set up its studio based systems, it was not involved in any major international work, although they did ensure their systems would be compatible for international conferencing. Since then, they have formed two international alliances, and were able to include their partners in meetings by using dial-up links. To hold meetings at short notice with partners in a foreign country would be impossible without videoconferencing. As Alwyn James said to me "I can't imagine life without it now".

For market researchers, there are three distinct areas where videoconferencing could provide great benefit. The first is the use that NOP have found, for fieldwork briefings. As well as getting a better briefing, those involved gain from the rapport and feeling of team working which the video meeting brings.

Second is meeting international clients, for project briefings and presentations. If you decide not to purchase your own equipment, there is a nationwide network of public studios available. If your client has their own videoconferencing facility, then the likelihood is they will be able to use that; if not, they will also most likely find a public studio not far away. The ability to hold meetings at short notice and with little impact on the rest of your day is the greatest advantage. But experienced users have also found it especially useful to be able to call others into a meeting for ten minutes to answer a technical point. You may not be able to justify taking a data processing person, or a statistician or sampling expert with you, but you can ask them to attend part of your videoconference with a clear conscience, and provide an impressive level of service to your client in the process.

The third is as a tool for interviewing. Here it could be useful in various ways. Focus groups do not need to be restricted by geographic location. You could have one group, half of whom are in one city and half in another. Alternatively, rather than having your client observing the group from the next room, the one-way mirror can be replaced by camera, and the observation gallery can be at the other end of the country. There are likely to be some imaginative uses, once the benefits of being able to contact whoever you want, at short notice, and speak to them in a way which feels almost as natural as meeting them face to face.

Until now, cost and the bulk of the equipment have ruled out use for individual departments and small organizations. It has only been the likes of the Royal Bank of Scotland could consider taking on the high costs of equipping and operating videoconferencing studios. BT's latest range looks set to change that. It features a standalone desktop unit, the VC7000 and, as an alternative, a "plug and play" kit for a standard Windows PC, called the "PC Videophone". This includes a phone handset, video card for the PC and montor-top camera, plus the software. Both cost around £2000, and they are almost portable.

The PC Videophone has the added flexibility of being able to share documents over the link simultaneous to the conference call - to the extent that the person at the other end can grab the mouse and make changes to your document on your PC, even though they do not have their own copy of the software. If you were making a presentation to a client, you could use this facility to present charts and tables in any software package you chose. Both standalone and PC-based systems are compatible with international standards for videoconferencing, and the datasharing facility adheres to one of the emerging standards for data transmission.

But before the people in the telephone room start to get worried about having to dress smartly for the office, when they go over to videophone, they can at least take some comfort from another development in the field. The next generation of videoconferencing may well include the facility to electronically alter your appearance, so that you can choose something dull and uncontroversial to slip over the slogan on your tee-shirt, or even swap bodies by choosing from a library of popular characters. Now who would you like to be today?

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, May 1996, Issue number 360.

© Copyright Market Research Society/Tim Macer 1997. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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