Type this article’s headline into just about any Internet search engine, and you’ll find plenty of video conferencing advice. Most of it applies to end-users – “decide who’s supposed to start the call beforehand,” “refrain from wearing loud clothing,” “don’t tap the microphone,” et cetera. But what about the IT and telecom departments implementing the technology? Are there best practices or pitfalls to consider? We asked system vendors and users for their perspectives. What follows could be considered video conferencing 101 – implementation and management do’s and don’ts. First things first – know what you want It’s important to develop basic parameters well before the implementation, our sources say. “Know what success looks like before you deploy the system, so you can work towards your goals very clearly,” says Brent Pookhay, Calgary-based vice-president and CIO at gas distribution company Enbridge Inc. His company has a mix of high-definition video conferencing systems from Cisco Systems Inc. Before installing the gear (Enbridge now has nine Cisco TelePresence installations), the firm chose travel reduction as its primary target. “Twenty per cent of the meetings in our TelePresence rooms should replace travel,” Pookhay says. Setting that goal helped Enbridge decide where to put the video conferencing systems, and the level of technology required. Not all of the locations needed the ultra high-end TelePresence 3000, with its three screens and directional microphones. Some spots were better served with the single-screen TelePresence 1000 and 500 iterations. Measurement is the only way to ensure the goals are met. Via user surveys, Enbridge is taking stock of who’s using the rooms and what for, to see if the technology really is helping to reduce corporate travel. Video conferencing could help with a number of issues – travel, time savings, environmental footprint... But focus is the key, notes Pete Nutely, director of product marketing at video conferencing vendor Tandberg. “It’s important to clearly identify the application that video can help with,” he says, pointing to Volkswagen AG as one Tandberg customer that gets it. The German automaker uses video conferencing to bring mechanical specialists in on repair work when the service centre happens to be dealing with one of Volkswagen’s higher-end, specialized vehicles. The technology reduces the travel time and costs substantially, and affords quicker repairs for customers, Nutely explains. Tampa Electric Company in Tampa, Fla. – another Tandberg customer – chose to focus on the environmental benefits. “In the first six months of this year, we’ve been able to save more than 2,500 tons of carbon emissions...just because people haven’t had to travel,” says Bob Brumm, senior systems programmer. Size matters Implementation practices change with the size of the system, notes Jeff Seifert, CTO of Cisco Canada. With the highest-end systems sporting large screens and as many as 15 users per session, “it drives a much stricter requirement,” he says. It becomes particularly important to ensure lighting, sound, and network quality support an immersive experience – one in which the participants could rightly forget they’re collaborating virtually. “When you get down to a single office where you might have one or two people on a single screen, it can be little more lax,” Seifert says. “When you get to desktops, the experience again drops. It’s really the trade-off between convenience and perfect conditions. The larger the group, the more you’ll want ideal conditions, because the meetings tend to last longer.... When you consider portability and the ability to use video from home, convenience becomes the overriding factor.” Enbridge has a slightly different philosophy: apply the high-end parameters across the board. “Initially we put a 500 in an office with a glass wall,” Pookhay says. “Occasionally as you were in a meeting, you could see someone walk by in the hallway. That became a huge distracting element. We decided we were going to push up the specs on the 500 as well, and follow the same specs we would for a 1000 – change the light bulbs to the right specification, paint the room a neutral colour, have a solid wall backing.... It really does contribute to the overall experience.” Too much, or too little? Another factor that could contribute to the experience is the company’s commitment to the video conferencing concept. Tandberg’s Nutely says customers that merely dip their toes in the video waters with perhaps one or two end points, just to see if the technology works, often fail to implement the network and ambience details needed to succeed. The result? Complaints. “’It’s too difficult to use.’ ‘My calls don’t always complete.’ Even if it’s a small initial deployment, it’s important to find a vendor that can take them through the different scenarios,” Nutely says. It’s also important to make sure the system speaks to the individual enterprise’s needs, says Enbridge’s Pookhay. “The reason we started with two rooms is quite simple. We saw all of the demos at Cisco, and of course it looked great in the showroom. We wanted to make sure that from a technical standpoint it worked as well in our environment as it did in theirs.... And culturally, we wanted to make sure our people were ready for it, that it was easy to use from their perspective. “I’m happy to report we were very satisfied on both counts.” Networking Everyone we talked to said network quality is crucial. Hewlett-Packard’s representative pointed out that his company offers a dedicated network specifically for customers using HP’s high-end telepresence solution, Halo. At systems-integration firm General Dynamics Canada – a Cisco customer with TelePresence implementations in Ottawa, Calgary, and a number of U.S. locations – network quality had to balance economic prudence. “The network engineers said we needed a separate MPLS network from Ottawa into the cloud in the US, and from Calgary into the US cloud,” explains Paul Girard, the senior IT manager in Ottawa. “That’s a huge cost. Every time you have to go into the US cloud, you’re looking at over $150,000 a year per connection, depending on where you’re going and the bandwidth you need. But we already had an MPLS network between Ottawa and Calgary that we used as our wide-area network. Why don’t we try to carve off a piece of that and try to use it, and only have one connection into the cloud from Ottawa?” That was the solution. “It works flawlessly.” General Dynamics Canada also discovered a potential issue regarding video conference room bookings. This is usually done through the enterprise e-mail system – Microsoft Corp’s Exchange Server in General Dynamics’ case. But the Exchange Severs in Canada weren’t connected to those in the US, so users faced having to call the US locations to book the video conferencing rooms there. The company found an answer in Quest Software Inc’s Collaboration Services system, which synchronizes distributed global address lists. “It essentially exposes the conference rooms in the US. Exchange version to our Canadian Exchange implementation, so we can see all of the video conferencing rooms,” Girard says. No calls required. Who should be in charge? Almost everyone we spoke with said the IT department should own the system management responsibilities. Cisco’s Seifert took this a step further: “It works well when it’s a partnership between facilities and technology to pull off the best experience. The best technology in a poorly lit room is not going to be effective. The best lit room without technology delivering quality of service and video isn’t going to work either.” Who should be allowed in? “We talked about this prior to going live, because it was a concern,” says Girard from General Dynamics. “Really the target audience for telepresence is senior personnel. However, we didn’t want it limited to them.... We put in a policy where anybody can book it in the organization, but there are certain people who can bump others.” Suzanne Kilner is the director of unified communications at Cisco Canada, and she was with Rogers Communications Inc when the telecom service provider implemented the country’s first TelePresence installation. For her, rank isn’t always the deciding factor. “We have organizations that say if you’re meeting with a customer, that has priority over an internal meeting. You can build out a set of rules that your people in facilities would be able to manage to deal with any conflicts in room bookings.” Miscellaneous advice Much of the insight we gathered is instructive, but perhaps difficult to categorize. For instance, Enbridge found that people would interrupt video-conferencing sessions because they didn’t know the room was occupied. “We hooked up the equivalent of a little on-air light you’d see in a radio studio, just to let people know it’s in use,” Pookhay says. Room set-up is important. Even ductwork makes a difference, says Cisco’s Kilner. “The equipment does generate a lot of heat, so there’s a cooling aspect to think about. Having vents at the back of the room where the people are sitting and having cold air blow on them is not going to enhance their enjoyment of participating in meetings.” “The notion that managed services and video conferencing go hand in hand is an idea that’s coming of age,” says Ross Camp, senior marketing communications manager, for Halo at HP. But not all managed services are created equal. Does the vendor offer obsolescence protection? Firmware updates? Is data encryption built into the network offering? Involve people “You’ve got to get buy-in from your stakeholders,” Pookhay says. “At the end of the day, IT isn’t the main user of this system. It’s all of the different business areas – public affairs, executives, engineering, human resources.” Don’t forget the administrative assistants. “They’d be the ones setting up the rooms and scheduling access,” says Brumm from Tampa Electric. Train the admins, and “that way somebody’s not walking in without knowing what to do, and just pressing buttons.” Do it right, and video conferencing could win you friends, if not necessarily influence the company to give you a raise. “I can tell you it’s one of the things I’ve done here that have made me very popular,” Pookhay says. “To be honest, a lot of people don’t like travel. If you give them options, they tend to be appreciative.” Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer in Ottawa. You can reach him via email@example.com.