Over the last decade, the emergence of a global digital economy has transformed organizations  and created remarkable opportunities. But the situation has also spawned enormous challenges.
“Historically a ‘workplace’ was a physical location with four walls, a fixed set of hours and a fixed set of people,” states Ryan McCune, senior director for Accenture’s Workplace Enablement Services group. “The Internet has enabled a massive ‘blurring of the lines.’”
At the center of this communication revolution: video conferencing. Although these systems have existed for a number of years, radical changes in the way people work, as well as marked advances in video conferencing technology, have snapped the concept into sharp focus.
As organizations look to collaborate and communicate more effectively — and create an anytime, anywhere culture — video conferencing is rapidly moving into the mainstream. In addition to saving budget dollars on travel and making better use of staff time, the technology offers enhanced access to meetings and conferences while streamlining collaboration in a growing number of environments.
Per a survey conducted by TechTarget in 2011, over half of respondents claim to be using some type of video conferencing solution within their organizations. And 66 percent expect to see an increase in budget next year for video desktop.
Still, developing a video conferencing strategy is no simple task. Free or low-cost desktop tools such as Skype and FaceTime are now widely used on notebooks, tablets and smartphones.
These services work well for casual and non mission-critical communication. But, increasingly, organizations are finding that they require dedicated video conferencing and presence systems that deliver professional-grade performance and a high level of flexibility.
“Video conferencing, when used effectively, can be a transformative tool,” states Umesh Bhavsar, a senior analyst in the marketing solutions group at Polycom. “It provides a level of communication and interaction that isn’t possible using a phone, instant messaging [IM], e-mail and other communication tools. It brings people together in a more personal way.”
The growth of video conferencing isn’t difficult to understand. According to consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, 84 percent of workers spend time handling tasks outside the office. And at nearly one-quarter of organizations, more than 50 percent of workers aren’t at their desks at any given moment.
Frost & Sullivan also reports that 40 percent of organizations with unified communications (UC) say it improves collaboration and productivity. Increasingly, video conferencing is part of this equation.
Today’s video conferencing systems — typically deployed over IP networks — allow a user to launch a call on the fly and without any aid from IT. They’re as simple to use as a telephone. These systems can provide significant return on investment for a wide swath of organizations.
Dan Shey, practice director for mobile services at ABI Research, says that organizations are now looking to maximize their investments in video conferencing technology. For some, particularly during recessionary times, this means trimming travel costs by replacing in-person meetings  with video conferencing sessions.
But it’s also about building a more dynamic and agile organization. This can mean “taping video conferences and replaying for a larger audience” as well as using live streaming for support and field service functions, he notes.
Video conferencing is particularly helpful in a wide variety of real-time support applications. In many cases, managers are turning to video conferencing tools to set up impromptu virtual meetings, train staff and connect to independent contractors as well as vendor partners and others — many of whom demand a high level of flexibility.
The technology can be particularly valuable for organizations that engage in offshore communications and hold regular virtual meetings. “It makes geography irrelevant,” says Bhavsar.
In fact, Frost & Sullivan reports that 72 percent of organizations are using video conferencing to boost performance and productivity. It also slashes costs associated with travel — which typically run about $1,000 per trip. Wainwright Research, meanwhile, found that the ROI associated with video conferencing can extend to above 200 percent — and in some instances reach 500 percent or more.
In addition, video conferencing can dramatically reduce an organization’s carbon footprint by cutting flights, vehicle travel and other transportation costs. Cisco Systems, for example, reported trimming $100 million in employee travel expenses in 2009 compared to 2006. The firm excluded the cost of hotels, restaurants, transfers and other ancillary expenses in the overall equation. Overall, the company trimmed air travel costs by 37 percent between October 2006 and July 2008. This resulted in 27 million cubic meters of fewer carbon emissions.
Over the last few years, basic desktop conferencing tools such as Skype and FaceTime have gone mainstream as individuals look to connect to others over the Internet from PCs, tablets and smartphones. These free or low cost tools are ideal for informal calls and impromptu conferences — particularly because most people now have them installed on their notebooks, tablets and smartphones. In addition, they’re often highly beneficial for smaller organizations on a tight budget.
“Video conferencing, when used effectively, can be a transformative tool....It brings people together in a more personal way," says Umesh Bhavsar, senior analyst at Polycom.
However, these desktop video conferencing tools aren’t ideal for mission-critical conversations. “The quality of the video and audio deteriorates and begins to fail as you involve more people and have higher expectations,” points out Simon Dudley , video evangelist at LifeSize Communications .
What’s more, organizations that rely on Skype may find that the service draws heavily from their network capacity. This is because of the way the video conferencing service consumes bandwidth.
As a result, a growing number of organizations are turning to dedicated business video conferencing systems from LifeSize, Polycom , Sony , Cisco  and an array of other vendors. These multipoint systems typically provide high definition (HD) video and audio and simplify network controls over bandwidth. They create a solution that’s designed specifically for professional use.
For example, LifeSize Desktop makes it possible to provide high quality audio and video between PCs and other devices, including smartphones. Meanwhile, LifeSize UVC Video Center offers one-button HD streaming, recording and auto-publishing capabilities. It makes live and on-demand videos easily accessible from almost any location for hundreds or thousands of viewers.
Polycom, too, offers a range of solutions, designed for mobile workers, office environments, conference rooms and immersive theater spaces. Some of these systems integrate with collaborative platforms, such as Microsoft Lync, to create a more robust UC environment.
Polycom RealPresence Room Solutions, for instance, offers high-performance, network-optimized video conferencing for conference rooms and group spaces. The firm’s RealPresence Immersive Theater solution creates a theater-like experience that’s ideal for board meetings, student lectures and tutorial sessions. It delivers life-size HD video and crystal-clear audio.
In fact, telepresence is another segment of the video conferencing marketplace. It enables immersive virtual meetings that closely resemble an actual in-person gathering. In some cases, organizations place three or four flat screen HD panels side by side while assembling groups of people in small conference rooms. Many of these systems also include picture-in-picture features that support simultaneous presentations.
The result is a lifelike experience that closely resembles a face-to-face meeting. At its best, it’s not unlike the level of quality associated with television broadcasting.
Dudley says that a key to video conferencing success is adopting systems that easily integrate with UC-based solutions, including products from vendors such as Cisco, Microsoft and ShoreTel. This makes it simpler to use integrated features, including social media, integrated IM and recording capabilities. A system must also be simple to use, provide a high level of reliability and security, and prove cost-effective and easy to configure.
Although organizations agree that video conferencing provides clear results — 73 percent of respondents in a recent Cisco survey reported that it provides a competitive advantage, for example — crafting a strategy and deploying systems requires planning. Most importantly, it’s critical to choose the right tools and build a technical and practical framework for using video conferencing systems across an organization.
In many cases, this means turning to different solutions and approaches for different groups of workers. It can also mean using dedicated systems, IP phones, specialized software and webcams to create a robust video conferencing environment.
The end goal is an infrastructure that makes the technology easily available and simple to use, regardless of where someone is located or what device they’re using at any particular moment. “Everything should be completely transparent to the end user. It should work seamlessly and effortlessly,” Bhavsar explains.
Not surprisingly, a robust network infrastructure serves as the foundation for a successful video conferencing initiative. Packet loss, latency and jitter — which can transform a video conferencing session into a frustrating experience or, at worst, total gibberish — aren’t acceptable.
As a result, network architects and administrators must ensure there’s adequate bandwidth for video conferencing. This means dynamically allocating resources across the enterprise and endpoints — and ensuring that systems at remote locations and satellite offices can accommodate the technology.
Make no mistake, an increasingly digital and virtual world demands more sophisticated and integrated collaboration solutions. In the end, video conferencing is an attractive and efficient way to amp up productivity and drive down costs.
It can help executives, salespeople and an array of others forge closer relationships — while delivering added productivity. Says Bhavsar: “The ability to see another person’s face and view their mannerisms and body language can prove incredibly valuable. It can make interactions more personal and relevant.”