Web Conferencing Week
In our first venture in this direction, WcW001, I described the week just past as filled with unusualities (coined in this space tyvm; if I use it 500 more times, think that it gets added to anyone’s dictionary?), and described one. Here’s another.
Only a few times in the five years I have been plying my trade at the HCA, have I been asked to conduct business outside the friendly confines of the navel of the known universe, our dual expansive campuses and its outlying but nearby satellite sites.
But, Wednesday afternoon I received voicemail from one of my most frequent clients, the sales training functionary for one of our most important product families, asking that I assist Friday at an all-day session emanating from a hotel near the airport.
Sent off a memo to the contact that had been specified, detailing the logistical arrangements that I would require (broadband access, a phone connection for the web conference’s accompanying telephone conference call, a second phone line and phone for monitoring purposes, sufficient power connections, table/chair near the audio technician, etc), received a quick response including the name and contact information for the event handler at the hotel. A quick call to this person confirmed that all would be as required, and her smooth and professional demeanor actually filled me with confidence that it indeed it would.
So, Friday, instead of trundling out to the navel, etc., trundled instead to the vicinity of the airport, to a very nice and upscale hotel, the likes of which grunts such as yours truly work at, but surely can’t afford to stay at.
After the usual flurry of activity around finding the venue, and locating the key contacts among people with whom one has spoken but never before seen (and no one wears red carnations to identify themselves any more — why is that?), located the hotel employee audio technician who was handling the event and, after at my request he arranged the switching out of his equipment table for something large enough for the both of us, began setting up.
The main problem in the morning during the run-up to the start of the broadcast sessions was the speed of the internet connection I was furnished. It seemed that everyone in the hotel was competing for the same not-so-broadband connection, and I found this to be somewhat crippling as I dealt with last minute changes to the presentation.
And, by the way, wireless was not an option. Not only did my laptop not detect wireless access in the room (although others PCs did, so that was a limitation of my equipment), but it is my hard experience that, for a very network-centric application such as a web conference, the flaky nature of most wireless connections is toxic.
As with most web conferencing applications, Lotus Sametime uses two major modes to display information to those connecting to it: screen sharing and its whiteboard. Screen sharing is the simplest mode: whatever the person sharing is doing on her desktop shows up within the screen sharing window in the instance of all participants’ internet browser connected to the meeting.
The meeting room whiteboard is not as simple to use; it requires prior setup to load (or, in Sametime nomenclature, attach) whatever presentation files to be shown. The value add for this setup requirement is that most presentations transmit throughout the network much more efficiently, since the information to be transmitted is cached on the server (i.e., while the current slide is shown, the next one is being loaded into memory, and the previous one remains available).
However, on the dead slow connection I experienced mid-morning at the hotel, the revised version of the presentation file I received could not load into the meeting — the process timed out. This was frustrating.
I persisted, and eventually, late in the morning, and perilously close to the noon start time of the first of the two events taking place in that room, the revision finally got loaded (I’m thinking that the contention for bandwidth on the hotel’s connection eased closer to lunchtime), and I was finally good to go. We connected the audio tech’s phone (running the interface from the room’s sound system so that all those using microphones would be heard on the phone) to the telephone conference operator, and at the proper time the event began.
Meanwhile, in this large conference room, an earlier event not requiring my participation had begun, and I had a chance to observe the participants from the tech table at the front side of the room. Well more than 100 young (everybody in corporate life is younger than yours truly these days!), attractive field sales people were in the midst of a several days long training conference. This day’s meetings were devoted to product knowledge.
Our field sales people have to know well a great deal of technical data, as well as all of the nuts and bolts of technical selling (a topic I’m certain was handled, or reinforced at least, on other days of this conference).
For most applications of web conferencing, usage is quite straightforward. The leader of the meeting connects to the Sametime server, connects his laptop PC to a projector, and uses the screen sharing mode to simultaneously project his presentation in the meeting room while making it available to remote attendees. In smaller meetings, whatever overhead is added for the web conference is minor, and whatever distraction that the electronic meeting may cause usually is minor.
However, for large meetings, that overhead and potential distraction is not acceptable. Early in my web conference facilitation experience I learned that for these types of large-scale events the best approach is to split the function of running the web conference away from the in-room presentation function.
And this is what we did for the meetings in the hotel conference center. This way, there was no spillover from the electronic conference into the meeting room itself; so had there been technical problems, or even communication from the remote participants relevant to the web conference, it would have been invisible to those in the room, and especially to the speakers, whose demonstrated technical expertise might not have extended to the web conferencing arena and whom in any event would not have welcomed such interruptions.
So, the idea is that two copies of the presentation are required: one, for the laptop PC connected to the projector in the conference room. The other, for the PC connected to and leading (“moderating” in Sametime nomenclature) the web conference.
After the energetic activities of preparation described above (and there’s always something in large meetings) things in the first, 50-minute session went quite smoothly, as did most of the second one until the last 90 minutes or so of that four-hour(!) presentation.
The last 90 minutes? Well, the second speaker neglected to mention the existence of, much less share his umpteenth and latest presentation revision with me. Turned out he had about 85 slides; I had only 67. Ouch. So I vamped as best I could (at one point I used my text annotation tool to announce that there were some new slides showing that were unavailable to the web conference).
Well, afterwards, my contact in field sales training consoled me by saying, “how many people do you think were actually paying attention in that last hour?”
And separately, the speaker apologized to me (after all, even those present in the room did not have those slides in their printed handouts) by saying, “they usually only allot me two hours.” Sigh.
But, in the larger context of the day this was minor (the organizers certainly reported so) although that could have been 5 o’clock Friday of a hugely busy week manifesting itself. But, if my customers are happy, so am I (especially if the issue in question was totally outside my ability to rectify).
Could I have anticipated a new version of the presentation? Of course, there almost always is. Could, under the constraints of time (just about 10 minutes from the end of the first meeting to the start of the second) and a suspect broadband connection (remember it took about 90 minutes elapsed time to upload the smaller revision to the first presentation) I have actually accomplished the successful update in time? Perhaps not. Sigh.
While it doesn’t really apply totally to this context, since the speaker was guilty with an excuse (had to fill a lot more time than usual — and by the way, his extended topics were interesting, to this amateur scientist, and relevant). Often, though, the last-minute tweaks that cause this practitioner of meetings so much gut-churning distress are mostly gilding the lily. So, it gives me the opportunity to roll out:
But, overall, a good and an interesting day. Can I apply the science I was exposed to during five-plus hours of presentations to my job, or my everyday life? Absolutely not. Was it interesting, in the context of learning for learning’s sake? Absolutely. Forty-eight hours later as I write this, can I remember any of it? Please don’t ask me that!
All told, an interesting end to a more unusual than usual week in the world of web conferencing.
It’s it for now. Thanks,