WcW008: Death by PowerPoint

October 7, 2007

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Web Conferencing Week

Befitting MUDGE‘s status as Tsar of All the Electronic Meetings, we encounter more PowerPoint presentations than anybody should ever inflict on any one person.

As a principal dialog of the language of business-speak, PowerPoint is ubiquitous in corporate America, not excepting the HCA where MUDGE plies his trade.

Ubiquitous, adjective, being present everywhere at once

Ubiquitous does not mean preferable in every circumstance, of course, but don’t tell that to the minions.

During the course of browsing a couple of days ago, found this short video.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Don McMillan is a very funny man.

Nothing else to say, except: eschew PowerPoint!

Eschew, verb, Avoid and stay away from deliberately; stay clear of

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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WcW007: About that storm…

September 17, 2007

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Web Conferencing Week

Previous post in this series, hopefully (I suppose) titled “Quiet before the storm,” we commented that it had been a considerably quiet summer.

MUDGE is here to announce that, despite the 75° temperatures as this is written at 8:15pm, summer is over.

We spent the entire day today “on location” covering three large scale meetings for three different internal clients.

Alas, MUDGE is employed by a company with not only global aspirations, but a substantial global footprint.

Today’s first meeting, client: our manufacturing division, was scheduled to accommodate third-shift workers coming off shift and first shift workers grabbing a meeting before clocking in, and of course many, many employees in Europe.

In Western Europe, the meeting began at 1:00pmCET.

In the U.S. Central time zone, tech call for this 6:00am meeting was 4:30am.

There oughta be a law.

But, there ain’t.

So we rolled out of bed at 3:10am.

It’s a wonder I wasn’t decapitated shaving.

But I got there. Good thing the sedan knows the way.

Meeting went fine; there were about 40 people in the room and about 25 connected on line.

Grabbed some breakfast (fortunately, this meeting, due to be repeated two more times throughout the day [although not on line] was actually located in half of a large company cafeteria), took down my equipment (two laptops, mini network hub, cables, telephone headset with transformer for monitoring the conference audio, etc.), and literally took it all downstairs to deploy absolutely all of it again in another conference room, where a significant department of our legal division was about to begin a marathon annual meeting.

This meeting had no global aspirations, as it was important enough that the global players had all flown in for the occasion, but one or two U.S. based individuals could not get away, and at the last minute (for my calendar, a request received two business days ahead is last minute) I was asked to provide service.

So let’s talk about what I do in such a meeting with all of that equipment.

A web conference is a lovely thing to behold, when it’s sitting on a desk in front of you.

Not so great if it’s projected onto a very large screen in a large conference room.

So we split the difference.

The presentation (usually the ubiquitous PowerPoint) is run completely independent of any network involvement off of a PC connected to the conference room projector. This delivers what we call the “Steven Spielberg experience” (you know, dark room, bright screen, maybe popcorn — and they were delivering popcorn to the second meeting as I was leaving!) for the local audience.

The web conference, with all of its exposed plumbing (participant list, chat area, hand raising buttons and all) is run in parallel at the back of the room, and is thus invisible to those physically present, who might after all have tomatoes to throw if displeased with the experience.

In larger setups, such as the manufacturing meeting, the presentation is also controlled by an a/v technician at the rear table, which can be a crowded place: audio technician with his microphone receivers, amps, mixers and telephone equipment; a/v tech controlling the slides, with two PCs (need a backup after all) connected to the projection system; often a representative of the speaker to supervise, especially if the presenter is, as was true at this early morning meeting, a corporate VP; and yours truly with two more PCs, the mini hub, cabling for both, etc.

Quite a scene.

The legal division meeting had an audio tech (lots of microphones in the room — our attorneys value every single word they utter) but the meeting was run from a PC at the podium, so my two PCs occupied the space next to the audio tech, a respected friend, without other interlopers.

Seemed a lot of effort though, for just two remote participants.

Just as well, since when we left that meeting SIX HOURS LATER it was still going on. Yeah, there were some breaks, and they did provide a snack and a cold cut lunch, so it wasn’t onerous.

And, one or two of the speakers (attorneys all) were almost entertaining.

Almost.

Had to leave early, as a previous commitment to my own IT division’s VP’s meeting took highest priority. Took down the PCs, the mini hubs, cables, etc. Packed it all away, trundled out to the car to drive to the north end of campus.

The third meeting of the day began a mere nine hours after the first one officially began.

For the third time today the complete setup was deployed. Dual PCs, hub, cabling — you’ve got the drill.

This one was a low budget affair. No audio tech after it began, just an ordinary Polycom speakerphone at the podium, and a portable projector in the middle of the room (a satellite cafeteria as it happened, very convenient for vital pre-meeting hydration and snacking) substituting for the built in equipment of the earlier meetings.

But it also went well, with more than 70 people connected, primarily in the U.S., as expected for a 3:00pmCT start. The previous Friday morning’s version of the same meeting in the same locale had accommodated one of the larger groups, with nearly 300 remote participants, including a bunch from overseas.

So I guess I’ve been leading a charmed life, with four critical meetings across two business days proceeding without incident.

Meanwhile, our server environment has experienced nothing but incidents. Our almost-but-not-quite-productionized past is overtaking us.

But whatever shrapnel thrown up by server failures missed me, and considering the visibility of the meetings, for that I am most grateful.

So, approximately 12 hours after arriving, and for the third time, we packed up laptops, mini network hubs, cables, extension cords etc., and dragged our bags out to the parking lot to head home.

Sometimes it can storm while it’s 80° and sunny.

But, a good day-and-a half, all things considered.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


WcW006: Quiet before the storm

August 29, 2007

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Web Conferencing Week

Late summer doldrums here at the Heart of Corporate America (HCA, not my employer’s real name).

One might hope that the lull in formal activities would provide some time for reflection, and so in fact it has.

As I’ve explained before (here and here and here, for example), as do most people in corporate surroundings, I wear a multitude of hats:

  • member of the IT technical team supporting collaborative tools (email, instant messaging, web conferencing);
  • teacher of our instant messaging and web conferencing tools to our internal business clients (more than 3,500 served in five years, thank you very much!);
  • “manager of the end-user experience” as defined by our vendor’s on-site support manager — while not in the direct flow of help desk activities (at least not yet), the canniest of my 3,500 students, and their underlings and bosses, know me well enough to contact me if they have issues, and since no one on the team, or in the support arena in general has anywhere the amount of experience with our tools as have I (over six hundred classes, all conducted using web conferences, plus countless mission-critical meetings facilitated throughout the enterprise), the answer to my correspondents’ questions is probably at the ready.

As teacher, I’m always running 8-10 classes per month, although during the summer average attendance is way down.

As end-user experience manager (an honorific provided by a suck-up vendor: remember, grunt that MUDGE is, he’s manager of no one) the phone just isn’t ringing very often, as people wrap up their summers before Labor Day provides the symbolic halt to all things sunscreen.

As member of the technical team, decisions are pending and work is progressing.

HCA uses for its instant messaging and web conferencing requirements IBM Lotus Sametime.

HCA has long been a Lotus shop: Its Lotus Notes product has long been handling enterprise email and its rapid application environment supports thousands of database applications and has done so here for more than 15 years. So the choice of Sametime was not a surprise in that light.

And, indeed, Sametime is a common choice for collaboration among large corporations, seeking the rock-solid enterprise grade solution similar and related to the rock-solid technology that so well supports the earlier applications: email and databases.

The best web conferencing and instant messaging choice today?

An excellent question that is not yet on the table.

Like many issues in corporate technology, the problems faced are multi-dimensional: hardware, software, the quantity of personnel applied to the task (fortunately, personnel quality is not an issue, among the talented administrators and architects that I am fortunate to work among).

Instant messaging and web conferencing at HCA exists not as the result of an organized deployment campaign, but rather more like viral marketing. It grew out of a pilot (when I joined the company, about 5½ years ago in a related but not directly connected IT position, there were nominally 800 accounts).

And the pilot became an “extended pilot” which gradually became a production system, without ever really becoming a true, bullet proof enterprise-grade product, at least as implemented here at HCA.

Insufficient servers (both in capability and in numbers), and insufficient personnel (as above, just the numbers are insufficient — the people are champions [and they won’t read this, so trust me, I’m not sucking up!]) to keep order in an operation that has grown to more than 26,000 accounts.

This number represents less than half of the available client base, because no one knows how to handle the establishment of the necessary 30,000 new accounts efficiently, much less want to confront the reality of insufficient hardware and personnel to handle the existing organically grown client base.

And, finally, the software. HCA upgraded (quite tardily) to Sametime version 6.5 about 21 months ago, and our team has been working on upgrading to the current standard version 7.5 for nearly that long (remember the tardy part).

HCA never never never never wants to be the early adopter of anyone’s hardware or software. The 100th adopter, maybe, so we delay, by time-honored policy, both IT and fiscal, until (hopefully most of) the bugs are out.

But we really need to move on this upgrade (the 2005 upgrade from long-used version 3.1 to version 6.5 was a marketing nomenclature upgrade — to the end users it looks and acts as if it’s version 3.2!), and the delay has not been HCA’s sole doing. And version 7.5 has many new and attractive and desirable features; it would be a true upgrade.

But we’re not there yet.

And therein lies an interesting story.

But this long story will need to be continued next time, because…

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


WcW005: Four-Hundred-Thirty-One!

August 13, 2007

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Web Conferencing Week

Once again, real life events overtake sketchy plans. Isn’t life like that, though? (Now I’ll need to find the quotation about life being the thing that happens while you’re planning your life.)

Got lots of interesting clipjoints to share; got a professional conference in Boston to write up (for my boss, as well as for faithful reader).

But this is too good to pass by.

I do web conferencing. You’ve more than figured that out. As a grunt in a corporate IT department that supports various collaboration technologies for a global enterprise, technologies whose common bond is its vendor, IBM, I am the informal “manager” of the customer experience for our web conferencing and instant messaging tools, IBM Lotus Sametime.

As I’ve explained, in this role I teach the use of our tools eight to 10 times per month, having developed the courseware, and delivering the classes using the web conferencing tool. One learns while using it.

Another hat worn is that of electronic meeting facilitator. As in those only semi-irritating BASF advertisements, I don’t run the meetings, I provide the technological expertise so the meetings run better. And that’s the role I was playing today, when the routine suddenly became extraordinary.

Our diversified enterprise has a tentpole product, and much of the work I’ve done over the past three years has been in support of that product’s US field sales training organization.

Today’s meeting was not another in the regular series, but rather was put together rapidly over the past few days as a new strategic initiative needed to be launched right now!

Ordinarily two meetings are presented with identical content and presenters: one at 9am or so for the central and eastern time zones; the other at 4pm or so for the western half of the country. Demographics have caused the morning meetings to routinely be quite large for our technology, often in excess of 150 connections and sometimes 200 or more. The afternoon sessions are about one-third the size of the morning ones.

Now, put this in the perspective of the technology and our experience. First, the technology: Last week at our vendor sponsored conference, several of the technical experts supporting Sametime (including the wizard who helped write the original code before Lotus bought it) confirmed that one server is designed to handle 1,000 concurrent users, with no more than 200 in any one meeting.

Now, our experience: In a typical month with several thousand scheduled meetings, more than 20 separately connected participants (and of course, some connections may represent entire conference rooms of people, but we’re talking physical connections) in a meeting is good sized, and meetings of more than 100 connections occur only two or three times per month if that, one of them no doubt being that month’s tentpole field sales morning events.

The largest meeting I’ve ever seen, and without false modesty I can say with some degree of certainty that if I haven’t seen it directly, or consulted with clients about it, it probably didn’t happen, was a division’s “all hands” meeting a couple of years ago in which I noted 296 (global!) connections at the peak, a meeting which I ran and which as a result went smoothly.

Why the emphasis on the number of connections? Web conferencing is a particularly network sensitive application, and in our current version of the software, the responsiveness of the conference rests in great measure on the number of connections, and the quality of the network through which the connections are made.

So, today’s meeting, where in order to cover all the bases (much behind the scenes work with management required to launch this complex new initiative) someone decided that the meeting should not be duplicated, but rather the entire organization should gather at noon, to get everything started without time zone delay.

Frankly, I hadn’t paid much attention to the ramifications, but as the troops gathered in the small conference room from where we originated the “broadcast,” and the field started logging in, I began to be a bit excited, concerned but excited. 100 was passed; 200 went by; 300 and the concern started to overwhelm the excitement.

By the time the sales vice president kicked off the meeting a few minutes past noon, nearly 400 people were connected. Remember network sensitivity? These were field sales people connecting via broadband from home offices, or managers in small local offices connected to the enterprise network through a secured enterprise VPN (jargon alert: Virtual Private Network).

Then, as I was quietly marveling over the still growing size of the meeting, the dire message suddenly flashed on my screen (and of course on the big screen in the conference room to which my laptop was connected): Disconnected. With the vice president seated and emoting right next to me.

[I’ve indicated before that my technologist colleagues wouldn’t have my job for any compensation, due to this up front and personal exposure when things (inevitably) go wrong.]

As I routinely do in small less equipped conference rooms, I had set up a powered mini-Ethernet hub for the benefit of others in the room; I keep this mainly for my own use, when I have one connection and two computers. Today I had one computer, but going in I wasn’t certain if one of the sales organization functionaries in the room was also going to need a connection to our meeting, and two or three others had connected to the hub.

Anyway, this less than year old piece of plastic clothed electronics chose that precise moment to crap out. Remember Murphy’s law?

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Of course my first thought was that the meeting itself had been clobbered, that the server, which had experienced its first serious failure in over four months just the previous work day (during a class I was teaching that was truncated as one unhappy result), had died under the load.

No, it was the mini-hub; the meeting on the server itself, still growing, was fine, although without yours truly connected it wasn’t going anywhere, since one of the little details that can tip a meeting into the success column is that such a large meeting is locked for all but its Moderator. In other words, in a Moderated meeting, no one but the authenticated moderator can push any of the buttons to move the presentation slides. (For completists out there, the other choice is Collaboration, in which all connectors can push all of the buttons — a total no-no for a meeting larger than five.)

But at least the meeting was running. While the Veep vamped for a few moments, I pulled the network cable out of the back of the now worthless hub, plugged it directly into my laptop, performed the three-finger salute on Internet Explorer to kill it so I could restart a new instance (fortunately I didn’t have to reboot, a much lengthier process on my elderly laptop), and in a couple of tense minutes (it’s tough not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain when I’m sitting right at the conference table NEXT TO THE VP and everything going on on my PC is projected for all to see!) we were back in business. Whew.

From there it was nearly anticlimactic. In the end, I spotted 431 simultaneous connections at the peak, an absolutely stunning performance, 135 more than the previous record. Once my connection was restored, the meeting went smooth as glass, again because of network issues not always a given regardless of the number of connections. Amazing, and wonderful.

Now there are wonderful commercial alternatives out there, even for our internal people whose requirements don’t always fit the hammer I wield. But for this meeting alone, the capability of using our in house tool allowed my clients to save at least $2,500; in a billion dollar enterprise a drop in the bucket of course, but I’m a shareholder too.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


WcW004: Telepresence: Finally, videoconferencing that works

August 1, 2007

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Web Conferencing Week

I do web conferencing. But you might be surprised that videoconferencing is often what my web conference supplements — right there in the conference room.

Videoconferences predate web conferences by many years; although the state of the art is still as primitive as it is, one reluctantly admits, for web conferencing.

It’s all about the bandwidth.

Let’s take a look at this recent story from Computerworld, regarding what appears to be a pricey, but better, mousetrap for the videoconference process.

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Telepresence: Finally, videoconferencing that works

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Telepresence: Finally, videoconferencing that works

It’s still not cheap, but telepresence technology takes videoconferencing a giant step forward. And did we mention that it’s really cool?

John Dickinson

July 31, 2007 (Computerworld) — If necessity really were the mother of invention, enterprises and small businesses would by now have highly functional, standardized videoconferencing and collaboration technology at their disposal. Instead, travel across the continent and around the world remains the dominant collaboration paradigm, despite the ever-increasing pressure of time-consuming security requirements and budget-killing airfare and hotel prices.

Back in the 1960s, the old AT&T Co.’s Western Electric Group demonstrated its Picturephone to a doubting world, and the world has remained doubtful ever since. That’s because videoconferencing systems developed since then have remained expensive and unpredictable, gadgets that usually delivered small, fuzzy, herky-jerky video images, often uncoordinated with people’s voices because of communications latency and unreliability.

When the Internet came along, there was hope that Web conferencing might fill the void, even though it lacks the collaborative impact of video images, relying solely on shared documents, especially presentations. Web conferencing has not been very satisfactory, requiring reserved bandwidth, separate telephone hookups for sound and notoriously troublesome desktop technologies.

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Telepresence: Finally, videoconferencing that works

I ashamedly plead guilty to all of the above limitations of web conferencing. We don’t use reserved bandwidth in our instance, and we’ve finally gotten some priority (called Quality of Service) over competing internal traffic, but bandwidth, the potential sound quality issues of the accompanying telephone conference that still is required for our web conferences due to flaky VOIP (a subject of a future rant, I’m sure) — all of this adds up to a lot of compromise.

Telepresence technology is proposed as a spendy answer to the limits of the primitive state of current videoconferencing, and may well obviate the need for my specialty, web conferencing.

Telepresence configurations can use as few as one HDTV screen or as many as 16. Screens are positioned to be at eye level when local conferees are seated, and the images on the side-by-side screens are “stitched” together so that viewers feel they’re looking at one very wide screen. Speakers are positioned so that the sound appears to emanate from the mouth of the person at the remote site who is talking, not from the center of the table or some random location elsewhere in the room.

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Okay so the illustration, provided by one of the vendors, is somewhat idealized, but HOW COOL IS THAT?!

It costs how much?
Telepresence is an expensive technology, and only enterprise customers with large travel budgets can afford it. Once installed, telepresence systems are essentially free to operate, but it’s the installation that’ll get you.

A single-screen Cisco TelePresence system can be installed for $79,000 and a three-screen system for $299,000 per room, according to David Hsieh, Cisco’s director of marketing management. You have to multiply that by the number of rooms planned for the telepresence network.

Teliris VirtuaLive system costs are similar, with a single-screen room costing $60,000 and a four-screen room coming in at $250,000. Those costs include access to the Teliris dedicated network.

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It’s expensive, but large enterprises, such as the one that employs yours truly has significant travel budgets, important outposts all over the globe, and the numbers just might work.

“Think of it as a nice substitute for a corporate jet,” says IDC analyst Nora Freedman. That comment is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but Forrester’s Dewing thinks it is realistic. “Figure that at Cisco, they’ve cut their corporate travel budget by 6% by using their own TelePresence systems internally,” says Dewing, who is familiar with Cisco’s internal usage pattern. “I don’t know the exact number, but that’s a pretty big hit.”

The factor that remains the greatest limiter to success with this otherwise ferociously attractive technology, is as with web conferencing I’ve learned the hard way these past five years, the state of the network.

The network is key
Networking has always been the Achilles’ heel of traditional videoconferencing, and it’s still a concern with telepresence. If the video isn’t smooth and perfectly coordinated with the audio in real time, the whole system devolves to being just like traditional videoconferencing. That’s important, says Ferguson. “With traditional videoconferencing, you can only sit there for about an hour. But with telepresence technology, a two- or three-hour meeting is quite reasonable,” he says.

As a result, one vendor runs their systems on a proprietary network, increasing the opportunity for a successful connection, but obviously representing an increment over using existing corporate network facilities.

Here’s how it hits conventional web conferencing:

[Teliris’] Telepresence Gateway can also communicate with traditional videoconference technologies, such as those offered by Polycom, and Web conferencing technologies such as WebEx and Microsoft’s LiveMeeting. Teleris also offers WebConnect, a Web-based telepresence product that enables a conference participant who is unable to be at a VirtuaLive-equipped site to join a conference. As Dewing points out, you don’t need expensive telepresence for applications like telecommuting, but linking traditional systems into telepresence systems can give those applications a boost.

I’m certainly aching to learn how soon our vendor, IBM/Lotus will provide a communications interface to this awesome tool for its Sametime web conferencing tool.

Because, no one has mentioned it to me (crawling around in the trenches as I do), but I’m certain one or more of those fancy installations is either planned, or already installed somewhere in the enterprise I call home.

And, let me explain why web conferencing tools even belong in the conversation about videoconferencing.

You still need to see the presentation, and a web conference provides a very elegant solution. At some of our organization’s highest level meetings, with video going out to several important sites, I’m sitting near the audio and video techs in the room sending out the slides via web conference, because they’re much easier to read in a medium optimized for presentations. The standard procedure is to use one of the screens in the receiving videoconference rooms for the web conference feed.

Notice the illustrations above: people — big beautiful high definition people — but not documents. That’s the job of web conferencing, and I want in on that telepresence action. Soon!

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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WcW003: Sometimes, it’s all about teaching

July 28, 2007

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Web Conferencing Week

As filled with unusualities as was last week, this past week… was not.

The main theme was teaching. We wrote about this facet of my career quite extensively in mm018 and I don’t feel compelled to rehash here. It’s a significant portion of my responsibilities here at HCA (Heart of Corporate America remember, not its real name).

And, like all things everywhere, it either dies or changes. I vote for change.

For more than a year, we’ve been attempting to turn over some of the basic courses to an expert in our division’s training department. To that end I’ve provided annotated course material, one on one instruction, the opportunity to practice. I am this good teacher, right?

It’s been a bust. Last year the explanation was that the designated person didn’t start that year with this goal in her list of goals, and thus was unable to devote the time and attention required to mastering the material.

This year began with this turnover on this person’s the goals list, but after a kick-off meeting in February, and prompt transmission of updated curriculum to answer some concerns, the person has simply not responded to my queries for nearly three months.

I’ve been teaching this material for so long I suppose I have underestimated its challenges. You simultaneously are teaching a collaboration tool while smoothly utilizing that tool to deliver the lessons. And in order to teach effectively, you are attempting to interact with your students using a very limited sensory array, just their voices and whatever of the conference’s tools they are able to begin to understand.

Pretty demanding, upon reflection, and I believe totally overwhelming for the training department’s MIA “expert.”

So, Plan B. Our vendor has a partnership with an organization in the UK that has produced some workmanlike Computer Based Training (CBT) modules that I’ve persuaded our department to purchase on an enterprise basis. These don’t provide the HCA-specific content that so richly fills my curriculum, but as our IT division’s underlying software philosophy is to customize purchased applications as little as possible, the generic CBT should be quite sufficient, at least for the basics.

The idea always was to remove some of the repetitive burden of teaching the “level 100” coursework (originally to a live instructor), leaving the advanced curriculum, as well as individualized instruction for higher level personnel to yours truly.

So, this week: mostly teaching. The scheduled three classes, two of them with that 3:00pm start time (to accommodate West Coast participants, a few of whom, I’m thankful to note, were present) that is supremely wearing on me, as this type of teaching seems to demand an energy level more difficult to tap 7½ hours into my business day.

The week’s one conference facilitation gig (my other public responsibility — and hey, it’s July!) turned out also to be about teaching, although that was not the intention of that meeting’s leader, nor mine.

Arrived at the designated conference room a few minutes earlier than the routine 30-minute lead time called for, to find a dark room, arranged poorly to accommodate my gear, and without a built in projector for the expected live audience, or a speakerphone for the conference.

Then the leader arrived, simultaneously with the caterer with a snack array (odd for an 11:00am meeting), which mystified that leader, who by the way arrived without a portable projector.

Her assistant apparently had misconstrued the purpose and intent of the meeting, which it turned out could have been much more conveniently conducted from the leader’s office, since there was no expected audience in the room; the presentation was meant to be transmitted solely to a conference room at a facility in Massachusetts.

Okay, so I walked down to the nearby Audio-Visual crew office, to request that a technician deliver and install a speakerphone (which had not been ordered by that assistant), and we determined that as it was just the presenter and me that we could forego a projector, and simply sit together at one of the 12 tables in the room and work off of my laptop.

So, with much conversation about the assistant’s misinterpretation of the leader’s instructions, which concluded with my promise to forward said person (a former student, who apparently assumed that she understood web conferencing because she took my course; well in her defense the two of us had lots of popcorn and canned soda available!) a document we created a couple of years ago and which is posted on our website titled “Successful Sametime Conferences,” a checklist which calls out key requirements like projectors and speakerphones.

But as we waited for the 11:00am conference start, the discussion turned to what she does: Corporate Learning and Development, and her group’s increasing need to respond to the globalization of our employer. It is a small measure of the silos permeating HCA that she had no idea of what I do (the teaching part I mean) or how I deliver it. And we’re both part of same broad corporate organization.

Meanwhile, we sat on the phone, and in the web conference, patiently awaiting our Massachusetts audience to join us. 11:00am goes by, 11:05, 11:10, nada.

She gets up and uses the house phone outside the room to contact a different assistant, who phoned back shortly thereafter to report that the HR manager at the other end who had requested the presentation, and had called more than once to confirm that it was on the schedule, had suddenly that morning decided that her team had higher priorities that day and had unilaterally canceled the session, apparently without notifying anyone outside of Massachusetts. Ouch.

And, while my direct customer is not the subject of this next Life Lesson, her customers certainly qualify:

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So, a lot of furor for nothing. But, a good outcome, selfishly for me, and perhaps for her organization, since I was told that I will be asked to an upcoming meeting of the Learning and Development management team to discuss my globe-spanning technology (and perhaps more?).

What on earth took them so long?

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


WcW002: Web Conferencing Week – On location

July 22, 2007

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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:

lifelesson

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,

–MUDGE