Posted by: Peter Quirk | August 7, 2008

How not to webconference

I wanted to follow up on the last post about the advantages of virtual worlds over conventional collaboration technologies and fill in some details that might not be obvious. In passing I’ll also comment on a dreadful vendor presentation I sat through today which demonstrates why so many collaborative technologies don’t work well.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have not used virtual worlds for meetings within my own organization yet, but I have attended a number of small and large meetings in Second Life. There are many technical hurdles and user familiarity problems with virtual worlds, but I believe that they are easily overcome. More of that later. Right now I’d like to flesh out two points in the previous post that need elaboration.

1. Real team spirit develops when teams share a unique moment that sets them apart from others. If you’re read my early posts on recruiting in Second Life, you’ll know that we found the actual recruiting fair to be very intense. It was like working a booth at Comdex for three days straight. After the last evening of work, we headed off to Kona Island to visit our colleague Suzy Spaatz, by day a marketeer in our EMEA operation, and in her Second Life, the co-owner with her triathlete husband of SL Triathlon (SLURL), a gymnasium for triathletes. We soaked up the sun on the beach, played in the shallows and ended up dancing the night away on the dance mat. That experience cemented a relationship amongst us which we won’t forget. It was captured on video and used in an HR quarterly meeting. As a result of that, our little group is forever identified as having shared a unique experience that binds us together in a special way. You won’t find too many examples of people describing an audio or video conference in the same way.

2. Shared browsing of web sites and VNC sessions. Both Second Life and realXtend support HTML on a prim. realXtend goes a bit further in supporting a VNC session (like a Windows remote desktop) on a prim. While any number of people may observe it, the experience is not synchronized since it is tied to the underlying media streaming feature in each client. The web-browsing experience is quite limited on both platforms in that there is no way to interact with the displayed page, even to scroll it. This is a fairly short-term limitation, like to be addressed in the coming year.

I also mentioned in the Problems with Audio Conferences section that it’s hard to catch up if you’re late. I noted this because of an experience I had a while back while listening to Cory Ondrejka speak at a Second Life event at Case Western Reserve University. I noticed that Tish Shute was online and figured she’d be interested in hearing what he had to say. I started taking notes (in a notecard) so I could refer to them later. Tish turned up about 10 minutes later and asked what she’d missed. I offered her the notecard, followed up a with a summation by IM, and we both continued to listen to Cory’s video presentation. Try doing that in your Polycom phone! (You’d have to revert to email to do that. More context switching! And you’d have to know the email address of the person requesting the notes. SL actually maintains your anonymity, while facilitating conversation between parties who may not want to disclose their identities. It’s great for those IDC or Gartner analyst briefings where every participant tries to remain anonymous for fear of revealing a product direction.)

Back to my awful meeting today. A vendor came in to present a proposal. As is the way with traditional sales engagements, they brought the national accounts manager, the account manager and the sales manager for the vertical application into the room. They had a remote team in Utah doing the presentation via LiveMeeting and an audio conference. They had trouble getting their laptop to display the full screen from the remote end. They also had no clue about about getting LiveMeeting to display more than 256 colors. After 20 minutes of mucking around they handed out the nicely bound hardcopies of the presentation which we referred to while the top left portion of each PowerPoint slide was displayed on the projector screen. The audio quality for one of the remote people was bad, and the remote parties couldn’t hear some of us. The live demo portion of the presentation was problematic for us as we couldn’t see the lower half of the screen.

Altogether it was dismal, a waste of energy and paper, and a poor use of everyone’s time. Of course, the sales reps will just go on like this, bringing nicely bound hard copies in case the LiveMeeting setup fails. They’ll justify it on the basis that it’s expensive to bring all these people, so you need to have all the backup you can muster. They won’t do a root cause analysis to find out what went wrong, or review their training materials on how to use LiveMeeting. While it’s conceivable that we could have had a better discussion in a virtual world, it’s unlikely that this team of older sales reps could master any collaborative technology much more complicated than a phone.

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