By Alan Earls
E-conferencing is helping far-flung EMCers meet face to face without ever leaving the office.
As late as the 1920s, the telephone was still so alien to the business world that many people avoided phones entirely in favor of in-person visits—despite the extra time that travel involved. Talk wasn't cheap back then, in any case. When AT&T launched commercial transatlantic two-way radio service to London in 1927, the charge was US$75 (equivalent to $919 today) for a three-minute call.
Since then, phones, cellphones, conference calling, e-mail, and texting have become economical and pervasive. In the late 1980s, the first quasi-practical videoconferencing systems emerged.
Today, EMC uses the videoconferencing gold standard of the 21st century. Cisco TelePresence systems—the newest jewels in EMC's e-conferencing crown—will save EMC a lot of money and time while shrinking its carbon footprint.
Michelle Kerby is a senior manager of Global Expense Optimization, supporting EMC's Cost Transformation Program. She says the company has made significant investments in deploying TelePresence centers across 11 sites globally, trying to enhance communication internally and with customers while cutting travel costs and making people more efficient.
The systems feature three high-definition monitors and dedicated communication channels that eliminate latency and certainly provide the illusion of meeting across a table rather than hundreds or thousands of miles away. EMC's rooms are set up identically, making the impression even more believable.
Two rooms have run at EMC (and have received rave reviews) for two years—they are located in the Hopkinton and Santa Clara Executive Briefing Centers. Now more sites are either operating or about to launch, including rooms at 176 South St., 228 South St., Cork, Pleasanton, Shanghai, Singapore, Brentford, Bangalore, and McLean, Virginia. Plans call for 11 three-screen systems and 14 one-screen systems, 25 in all. Locations are selected based on their money-saving potential.
Kathy Merz has managed the Hopkinton EBC site since the room was built. "I had no previous experience with running anything like this, and actually, managing it is just a small part of my job," she says. "But I quickly found it very easy to use."
EMC looks for every way to keep employees efficient. Traveling by air is not efficient. The systems enable people to accomplish more in less time—namely, in less travel time. "This is a huge factor for our briefing centers," Merz notes. "We can 'send' a Hopkinton-based EMC expert to a Santa Clara customer briefing without having to fly them there."
Users quickly become comfortable with the system. Still, Merz likes to seat new EBC presenters in the TelePresence room before customers arrive to give them time to move beyond the "wow" factor. First-time presenters usually need a minute or two to become accustomed to looking into a camera rather than directly at peoples' screen images. After that adjustment, it all seems natural, just like being in a regular room.
"The first time we spoke with people in Santa Clara, I remember being amazed at how detailed everything was, from the audio clarity to the carbonation bubbles rising in someone's drinking bottle. It was as if I were right there," Merz says. (Ed. note: Food and drink are no longer permitted in the rooms.)
Kathrin Winkler, senior director of corporate sustainability, says, "A year or two ago, I participated in a TelePresence event involving EMC and another company. By chance, months later, I was introduced to one of the participants in person. He said, 'Haven't we met? You presented to us, but I can't remember if it was at our site or yours.' I replied, 'We did meet, through a screen, at both of our sites!'"
More than video
E-conferencing—audio, web, and video—is obviously strategically important to EMC, a company with physical facilities in more than 60 countries, with 40 percent of employees working outside the U.S., and doing business in 100 countries.
"We have to be able to connect effectively," Kerby says. "The experience of meeting in person will never be supplanted, but it can be supplemented."
Only a few TelePresence centers have been installed at EMC so far, and the company continues to offer employees Microsoft Live Meeting and Polycom audioconferencing setups.
Altogether, Cisco TelePresence, Microsoft Live Meeting, and Polycom support internal and external meetings nearly everywhere EMCers work. These systems dramatically reduce the time required of participants, and they are slashing EMC's travel costs.
"From a strategic standpoint," says EMC Executive Vice President and CFO David Goulden, "Our subject-matter experts will engage with each other and with our customers in more ways, and in more locales, than ever before. In 2008, we held more than 300 meetings using Cisco TelePresence alone, saving 3,000 hours of employee travel time. Every day, 500 hours of virtual meetings are conducted around EMC using Microsoft Live Meeting and Polycom, cutting even more nonproductive travel time."
Just as telephones appealed only to the business world's early adopters 100 years ago, videoconferencing, still rather uncommon, will eventually be widespread. "At the moment, the technology really only works within our firewall and with a small number of partners around the world," Kerby admits. "But we are working with a vendor that is helping us to connect to customers and prospects via TelePresence, and that will really open the floodgates."
It's cool to be green
Then there are the environmental benefits—an increasingly important measuring stick for any business initiative. Says Winkler, "E-conferencing provides a very effective alternative to business travel, which is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions regardless of whether the traveling occurs by car or plane." Indeed, thanks to travel policy changes, increased e-conferencing, and the overall money-saving ingenuity of employees, EMC's travel-related carbon emissions declined by 29 percent in 2008 from 2007 levels.
Winkler says acceptance of the technology is part of the challenge ahead: "People tend to resist change, and it is true that in certain situations, being there in person can be crucially important. But as people get comfortable with this technology, they broaden their vision of what they can accomplish with it—they mentally expand what they see as being possible."
On a recent trip to Dubai, for instance, Winkler joined a web conference in which six people participated remotely (albeit for some, at 3:30 a.m., with one person wearing the inventive dress-shirt/tie/pajama-bottom combo). The right experts were present, the interaction was flowing, and Winkler in Dubai was providing the in-person touch. "It was the best of both worlds," she says.
On another occasion, the IT industry organization The Green Grid, which Winkler supports as board member and EMC representative, held several meetings via Cisco TelePresence. (More than 400 organizations globally use TelePresence.) "We met with people in Austin, Texas; San Jose, California; and Boxborough, Massachusetts," she recalls. "We accomplished an amazing amount of work. Nobody had to travel more than an hour by car."
Slowing climate change will require changing how people conduct business and how they lead their lives. Technology itself isn't an obstacle, Winkler believes, but rather it is how we use technology: "It's not a matter of just driving more efficiently; it is a matter of driving less." In that context, e-conferencing can help establish new norms, as phones did decades ago. "Over time, people will view face-to-face meetings as being less necessary and potentially wasteful. I do think we'll witness that cultural shift," she says.
David Goulden adds, "The tools for meeting virtually just keep getting better. And with all their advantages, we are committed to expanding their use globally at EMC."