At about the time the Beatles arrived in Australia delegates at the International Trade Fair in New York were spellbound with the world's first demonstration of videoconferencing. They were told that within the next decade there would be a video on every phone line. Thirty four years later we are still waiting. However, despite all the promises and attempts to get the ball rolling, the videoconferencing market in Australia today is still relatively small. For the last three years IDC Australia has asked questions on the adoption of video-conferencing in its"Forecast for Management" survey of IS executives. In 1996 19 per cent of respondents reported they had adopted videoconferencing. In 1998 that figure was 22 per cent. Yet, in 1996 a further 36 per cent of respondents anticipated using videoconferencing by the end of 1998. Clearly this upsurge in the adoption of videoconferencing never happened. Nevertheless, there seems to be fresh hope. Some vendors are trumpeting the potential of video over the Internet Protocol. The emergence of established standards in recent years has facilitated conferencing between disparate systems. Furthermore, the equipment and bandwidth demands for effective communication seem to be getting less taxing.
InTEP members seem to cost-justify the technology in a number of ways. Many senior executives are looking to videoconferencing to help reduce their travel costs. It is also seen as a way of boosting the "quality of life" for these executives by reducing the time they need to be away from their families. It is also being looked at as a way of optimising staff time. For example one trainer could deliver a course simultaneously to people at every location in Australia rather than having to invest several weeks time in travelling around the country on a roadshow. Not surprisingly, IDC's studies show that the education sector, at 43 per cent, is a significantly higher adopter of videoconferencing. Other organisations are looking at videoconferencing as offering better ways of working. A number of banks are integrating it into an information kiosk concept to provide customers with a way of contacting specialist staff. The Australian Tax Office has used videoconferencing as a way of fostering better team work between staff around the country who are working together on national projects.
Nevertheless, videoconferencing has some hurdles to cross before its projected growth can be fully realised. In particular, work needs to be undertaken on data compression to achieve a level where high-quality videoconferencing can be supported at any desk through a single phone line. Perhaps though the major issue holding back videoconferencing is the need to clearly articulate its real business benefits. Certainly among InTEP members I can see an extensive adoption of the technology in the mining and exploration fraternity.
Videoconferencing can overcome the major difficulties of getting to some of these remote communities.
However, such applications are not the mainstream and, as one InTEP member said at a session on this topic: "it's pretty hard to shout a beer over a phone line". Undoubtedly a key fundamental in the dynamics of most businesses is the need for regular face-to-face dialogue. Such discussions can be animated rather than regimented; subtle nuances and body language can be better appreciated, hospitality can be displayed and confidence can be more easily gained.
These needs mean that videoconferencing is unlikely to make a serious dent in the travel schedules of most business executives. As such, it seems we still should not hold our breath over the dream of a video on every phone line.
Peter Hind is the manager of User Programs, which includes InTEP, at IDC Australia
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