Cisco’s use of TelePresence last Monday to announce its Unified Computing System sparked an interesting reaction on the New York Times Bits blog. The Times republished the blog post in today’s print edition.
The post by Ashlee Vance takes aim at Cisco for the “scripted” feel of the 14-site TelePresence session for reporters and analysts. You can read the story here. Some reporters who showed up at Cisco headquarters for a news conference were apparently frustrated that Cisco CEO John Chambers was in another suite upstairs rather than in the same room with the media. Vance also writes that the question-and-answer session that followed the two-hour event also felt scripted in that Cisco apparently muted microphones and prevented follow-up questions.
OK. It’s time for a discussion of formality and telepresence. First, let’s separate the event from the technology. I did not attend the event, so I can’t comment about its execution. However, I did participate in a launch event and news conference last October for Cisco’s public TelePresence suites. You can read about it in my October 15, 2008 post.
Like last Monday’s Cisco event, executives at the October 15, 2008 event were in a separate TelePresence suite from reporters and analysts who were in the same building. This worked well, because the local group was relatively small, and each participant had a seat at the TelePresence table. Also, the approach was particularly appropriate in that the subject of the event was TelePresence itself. During the event, which linked about six sites, I had no problem asking follow up questions and engaging in an extended dialogue with Cisco senior leaders.
In contrast, holding a 14-site news conference like the one last Monday certainly can increase logistical issues and reduce the question time per reporter. The benefit, though, of using TelePresence for the event is that it significantly increased media participation globally, so that a reporter in Asia could gain the same access as a Silicon Valley-based reporter for The New York Times—access to Cisco CEO John Chambers and other participating CEO’s including Paul Otellini of Intel, Joe Tucci of EMC, Paul Maritz of VMware, and Bill Green of Accenture.
Despite increased access for geographically-dispersed journalists, there was clearly a disconnect between Cisco and at least some reporters who showed up at Cisco headquarters expecting a same-room news conference. Here lies the problem. Some reporters may have felt that Cisco was insensitive to their needs, and these reporters failed to grasp the benefits and potential of TelePresence. Consider the potential power of this tool…people coming together regardless of level, role or region and interacting in an immersive virtual environment that approximates across-the-table, same-room interaction. Some reporters missed this, in part because of formality.
This disconnect highlights the need to ensure that the use of telepresence mirrors in-person interaction and preserves in-person etiquette. Reporters on deadline get restless and frustrated if they must wait two hours before asking questions, and they always want the option to ask follow-up questions. Otherwise, they feel controlled at best and muzzled at worst.
It would be unfortunate, though, if New York Times readers confused any concerns about event execution with the technology itself. The greatest potential for telepresence and TelePresence (the spelling with capital letters is Cisco’s brand of the technology) is for informal, spontaneous interactions. Currently, telepresence is used primarily for scheduled meetings and events. The most collaborative organizations use real-time, interactive video for on-the-fly encounters. I profile some of these organizations and describe specific ways companies can create value through informal, spontaneous interactions in my current book, The Culture of Collaboration.
Since the publication of my first book, Personal Videoconferencing (1996), my team and I have been conducting research on—among other aspects of collaboration— using visual communications for spontaneous, informal interactions. Recently, I formalized this research effort by establishing The Culture of CollaborationÒ Institute. My future books and derivatives will leverage the Institute’s research. If your organization is interested in supporting our work, let me know.
Organizational culture, environment and business processes are key to enabling spontaneity and informality. Tools including telepresence—used effectively—are critical enablers in extending and enhancing an informal, spontaneous culture. I highlighted the role of informality in collaboration during an interview with CNBC’s Donnie Deutsch on the “Collaboration Now” primetime special. You can view a video clip here.
Telepresence is a key element in collaborative enterprises and will soon become available at much lower price points for consumer use. Without informal, spontaneous uses of the tool, vendors run the risk that people will view telepresence as a tool only for formal, scheduled events and meetings. The real value of telepresence is enabling on-the-fly encounters, sort of a virtual water cooler.