Volcanic Ash Means More Bad Webmeetings

Last Updated May 14, 2010 7:15 AM EDT

When the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, thousands of big executives found themselves stuck in airports thinking, "there has to be a better way". Not surprisingly, their thoughts turned to video conferencing and webmeetings. What they probably didn't consider was that increasing the number of webmeetings would also dramatically (maybe exponentially) increase the number of really awful, unproductive webmeetings.

According to the British video conferencing company Eyenetwork, inquiries about video conferencing and webmeetings increased over 60%. This makes sense -- companies want to reduce the hassle and cost of overseas travel (although you have to wonder what companies out there who travel haven't at least investigated these options already). We've seen this before.

After 9/11, the videoconferencing and webmeeting business really took off. So did complaints from abused audiences. There are three main gripes about webmeetings (not including the cancellation of real meetings in fun places like Vegas and Orlando), and they stem from the same root cause: an available tool and no plan for how to properly use it to achieve business goals.

Here are the three main complaints about webmeetings and what companies should do to make sure they get all the advantages from them.

  1. This stupid thing doesn't work. Complaints about glitches and computer freezing are still common, although less frequent than they used to be. Most problems with these platforms stem from trying to get them to do things they can't do given the laws of physics. If your people are on a slow VPN, there's no way Einstein himself can make video run properly. What you get is a choppy, annoying picture and frustrated employees. Really investigate how your people work before committing to a platform. Go month by month to start, or start with a small user group and run WebEx or LiveMeeting or Dimdim or whatever you choose to use.
  2. They're unproductive. This has nothing to do with the technology and everything to do with the people using it. Brainstorming, collaboration and learning can be done very effectively, they just often aren't. Add up the time and trouble of connecting, logging on and mix in the fact that people's attention spans and willingness to participate take a beating online and you realize that webmeetings are a different animal. They have to be short, focused and well-facilitated. Does your company offer training or learning opportunities in online facilitation?
  3. Presenters are boring. Unfamiliarity with technology means that even good presenters and leaders can look unprofessional and flat. The average end user of video conferencing and webmeeting platforms gets less than 5 minutes of training- which usually consists of "click this, talk here, try not to hurt anyone". Over time people improve, but if the first few meetings your people participate in are awful, how willing are they to use these tools? Are people encouraged to practice and learn on the tools or are they kept under lock and key?
Less travel automatically means you save money (you can hold a lot of bad webmeetings for the price of a single coach trip to Cleveland). But if companies want to really see the productivity and other gains these tools can bring they'll have to invest in good training and support for users,not just throw them a user license and expect results.

Let's face it, a bad webmeeting or video conference can make you long for the excitement and glamour of an airport departure lounge.

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photo by Flickr user f650biker CC 2.0