As I walked into Cisco’s new public telepresence suites yesterday at the WebEx tower in Santa Clara, California, I was greeted by a video receptionist. “Hi, may I help you?,” the receptionist said. I immediately sensed professional intimacy, because of the quality of the visual experience. “I’m here for a Cisco telepresence session,” I explained. The receptionist then invited me to help myself to the catered breakfast in the outer lobby. I then grabbed a cup of milky, cardamom-spiced Indian coffee, which hinted at the global nature of what was about to happen.
Down the corridor were several public telepresence rooms of different sizes. Cisco people including Marthin De Beer, senior vice president of the emerging technology group, were in one room with Peter Quinlan, director of telepresence managed services for Tata Communications. I was in another room with the research director of The Culture of CollaborationÒ Institute plus a few journalists and analysts.
Joining from his home in Bangalore, India was Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s chief globalization officer, presumably conducting his last meeting of the day at 11:00 p.m. Bangalore time. In London, Vinod Kumar, chief operating officer of Tata Communications, and his colleagues participated. From Boston, Taj Boston Hotel General Manager David Gibbons joined us from the Taj’s new telepresence public room. From New York, an industry analyst was also connected. So, our group spanned the globe—six connections in four time zones. However, we felt almost as if we were sitting across the table from each other.
Cisco and its partners are challenging the notion that telepresence is an exclusive tool for Fortune 500 executives. “We have found that the largest users of telepresence are the mid-management level in our organization,” says Kumar of Tata Communications, a subsidiary of the $62.5 billion Tata Group. If you’ve been to India, you know that the Tata name is everywhere—on motor vehicles, industrial equipment, and even tea. In recent years,Tata has become a global company.
Tata is a highly-strategic relationship for Cisco in that besides its communications business, the Mumbai, India-based conglomerate has holdings in engineering and building, services, chemicals and consumer products. Taj Hotels, a Tata company, is providing public telepresence rooms in Boston, London, Bangalore, Mumbai and other cities throughout India. “Small and medium-sized businesses will be the greatest users,” predicted Gibbons of the Taj Boston Hotel. There will be a hundred public TelePresence (note that Cisco capitalizes the “P” in its trademarked product name) suites globally by late 2009, according to Cisco. Hourly fees currently range from $299 for a 1-2 participant room to $899 for an 18-participant room.
Unlike office buildings that typically close nights, weekends and holidays, hotels are open 24/7 every day of the year and provide perhaps the best opportunity to maximize a global business environment through pay-per-use telepresence. It’s a holiday in your city, but you need to connect intimately with colleagues in another region where it’s a regular work day? Hotel-based telepresence addresses that issue.
Significant from a technical perspective, Cisco and Tata are providing secure, encrypted conversation through any company’s firewall. “This has not been possible before with any technology,” noted Marthin De Beer of Cisco. Tata Communications delivers converged voice, video and data over Internet protocol (IP). Tata’s strategy is to get companies used to telepresence through public rooms and work on migrating some companies to invest in their own telepresence rooms.
Cisco says it has integrated 300 telepresence systems into its own operations globally. Some senior leaders including De Beer have their own systems, and Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s chief globalization officer, joined yesterday’s telepresence session from his home office in Bangalore, India.
While much has been made about videoconferencing and telepresence reducing long-distance travel, these tools can also reduce local travel and commuting. De Beer noted that he saves an hour per day by using telepresence instead of driving to meetings on and around Cisco’s campus. As telepresence becomes more widespread, people will gain the opportunity to work globally while reconnecting with their physical—as opposed to virtual—communities. Telepresence will also allow for better work/life balance and potentially take social responsibility to the next level.
After the session, as I said goodbye to the video receptionist, I wondered whether receptionists in Mumbai, Manila and Montego Bay will soon be greeting visitors in corporate lobbies in Memphis, Modesto and Milwaukee. Well, Cisco’s Marthin De Beer, who is based at the company’s headquarters in California, has a video assistant who works from Texas and virtually greets visitors to his office. So, Cisco is clearly practicing what it’s preaching.