Video Killed the Radio Star

June 20, 2012

I’ve just finished my fourth hour of telepresence calls for the day. It’s odd, because a couple of months ago I would have laughed if you said that I was going to spend that much time in video calling. It got me to thinking, does doing this stuff through video really make a difference? Does it make me more efficient, more productive, more fill in your adjective here?

Cisco has been espousing the benefits of video for a number of years. A large number of years. I remember at least 10 years ago, I attended a Cisco IP Telephony Users Group conference in Dallas. Cisco got up and presented and started talking about all the video that they were going to be putting into the product. At the time, my company was running a 3.3 version of CallManager if I remember correctly and everyone in the room was a little upset that Cisco was focusing on adding video to the product instead of adding functionality that was already in every old TDM PBX. If there had been weapons available, I feel certain there would have been a bloodbath.

In the years that followed, Cisco has been like Puxatony Phil, coming out every year and announcing that video was the next big thing and then waiting to see if it saw it’s own shadow in the video call. For a good long while I heard the announcements and just shrugged. I mean, yeah it was a neat thing to be able to pick up a phone and dial and have it end up being video, but was there really any benefit?

I’ll admit that the CIPTUG meeting had biased me to be not all interested in video and for a long time I didn’t pay any attention to it at all. Then late last year I worked for a company that had a department that focused on selling video and telepresence systems. I figured that I had run into some people that didn’t work at Cisco that were excited about video so I would give give it a try. I learned a lot, but the thing that I noticed was that within the organization I was involved with very few calls that involved video. So I still didn’t necessarily see the benefit though I knew a lot more about the technology than I had before.

Fast forward to about a month and a half ago. I had taken a new job with a small Cisco reseller and one of the notable things was that they had made the investment into telepresence and all of their employees had video. I was hired into a management position there and so I thought it was the perfect time to do a little test of whether or not this had any advantage other than being a cool technology. I told several of my employees that if they wanted to get ahold of me that they had to try me on video first. When I get on Webex sessions I made sure to enable video and usually if I did the other participants would follow suit. In the month and a half after my hire, I have had a lot more video calls than the past year and a half, heck probably the last seven years. So, that brings up the question, was it worth it? Was there any benefit from it that I couldn’t have gotten from just doing regular phone calls?

Just as in everything, using video for my business communications there are benefits and drawbacks. So to really analyze whether it was good, I put together a little list of things both good and bad that happened for me when I used video.

The T-Shirt Effect

I’ll be honest, sometimes in the morning rather than getting ready for work and then going to work, I sometimes do the opposite. Sometimes I roll out of bed, put on a fresh t-shirt and some shorts, go downstairs and grab some breakfast and then I start working while I eat. Probably not the best habit, but it’s what I do. More often than not, I will go from working and eating and slide right into my work day: sending e-mails, catching up on what the engineering team is doing, planning out my task list for the day.

That’s when it happens, I get my first video call of the day. Here I am with my “Boobs are Awesome” t-shirt on, unshaven and looking like I just rolled out of bed (because I basically did) and one of my guys is video calling me, just like I asked them to as a first contact method.

Video has really required me to change my morning ritual. Now the first thing I do when I get up is shower, shave and get ready for my day. I’ll still, more often than not, eat my breakfast and work but it’s easy to set the breakfast aside while I do my call and continue it after that’s done. Additionally, being a home worker, I used to just shower and then wear a t-shirt all day because I wouldn’t be in front of co-workers and customers. Now, I dress for work every day because every day I am in front of customers and co-workers. And no, I’m not wearing shorts. I believe if I’m going to do something I shouldn’t do it half-assed. That includes getting dressed for work.

Are you Listening?

Everyone has been on the conference call where they are talking and completely sure that the person on the other end of the line is not paying attention to you. Even when that person is who your message should matter to most. Not only that, it’s sometimes easy to let your own concentration drift on one of those super-long calls.

With video, both ends of the call benefit from increased attention. I think this is two-fold. First, if you’re on video, you don’t want the guy on the other side of the call to see that you’re actually just talking to people that are in your office while you have him on mute so you will actually be more present in the call. Second, I think the majority of people on this planet are visual people. I have no concrete evidence on this, but if you look at the number of YouTube videos out there I think that is pretty plain. By taking this communication that used to be audio only and turning it into an audio video experience it becomes easier to pay attention, because everything else in our world has video associated with it too! But hey, don’t bring up the radio, I’m ignoring that for this reason.

Show Me State

I’m going to dovetail off of the last pseudo-factoid from the last section into this. Being visual people means that video can help us in more ways than just seeing a human face on the other side of the screen. Let’s take these couple of things into account:

  • Anyone that has been in a meeting with me will tell you that I talk better when I draw. Put me in front of a whiteboard and my communications suddenly becomes more clear. Not that I’m a babling idiot without that, but it’s easier for everyone to talk at the same level I think. Over the past month, there have been several times where I have taken my PrecisionHD camera during a video call and pointed it at the whiteboard and just started drawing what I am trying to explain. As long as I don’t use extremely light colors, the camera will catch the drawing and everyone can see better what I’m talking about even though my drawings are total crap!
  • Either I’m just really bad at reading tone (which is a total possibility) or the people I work with don’t use tone of voice to help them express very well how they are feeling about something. This can be a really big problem, especially for someone like me who naturally adds sarcasm to many conversations. Being able to see people’s faces, and they see mine it makes the conversation flow a lot easier because those visual cues can be added to the audio cues (or lack of audio cues) to have a full understanding of what is actually meant instead of what is said.
  • Sometimes I give training classes. They are usually filled with corny jokes, but I do warn people beforehand that I will be telling technology-related corny jokes as I do the training class. That’s not really the point though. What is the point is that some of the show and share features that Cisco has now, I can record the video for training classes that I have done and put it in a central location for peoplet to view. Additionally I can use speech analytics so that if you’re watching the video you can search for the corny jokes in all their glorious high def goodness!

Just a couple more items to think about rather than just seeing the guy on the other side of the call.

As you might be able to tell from the reading, I’m not one to focus on cost savings by using video. Sure, if you are the right kind of company you might be able to save some money, but you really have to have the right kind of culture that says to use video first before you even think about travelling. Has my company saved some cost because of video? Sure, I have done product demos over telepresence with an office that is a six hour car drive away rather than flying there. Do I still occasionally fly there? Yep, there is just no way to replace a handshake in the grand scheme of things.

So is video worth it? Did I get any benefit from using video? Did it make be better, faster, stronger or cost less? I don’t know about all that, but I would say that I got a benefit just from being able to have clearer communications. Can I attach a massive dollar amount to the savings, I don’t really know. And I think that’s the state a lot of people looking at video are in. They can see advantages to it, but when budget is king you have to find a hard dollars and cents return on investment.

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