Although they are the kind of expenditures that give CFOs the
shivers, telepresence systems are becoming a growing option for
many organizations. From a learning department's point of view,
these systems could offer obvious opportunities for cost saving
through reduced travel expenses. But there's more at stake than
ROI, according to a recent report.
"I'm not talking about the marketing terms that get bandied about,
but rather an engineering solution of video, audio, and ergonomics
that simulates being there," writes Mike Healey in a new best
practices report published by InformationWeek Analytics. "This is
the stuff of George Jetson and Buck Rogers."
Healey is the president of Yeoman Technology Group, an engineering
and research firm that focuses on maximizing technology investments
"Telepresence systems combine updated compression and video
protocols in high-def TV with good oldfashioned human factors
engineering to create a more personal experience that adds all the
subtleties of personal conversation - eye contact, voice tone, and
body language - to video," he explains. "Unfortunately, these
systems don't have a broad range of interoperability and have
bandwidth requirements that make web-based usage highly
"We were looking at the topic across all functions, not just
learning," Healy tells Learning Executives Briefing. "Telepresence
stimulates that next level of human interaction as much as
possible. It has a dramatic impact on, and implications for,
learning. You can be in meetings longer. Ultimately,
videoconferencing has an inherent discomfort if you meet for more
than an hour. You aren't looking at each other; there are no body
cues. It's like being on the phone. Even a web conference that
lasts an hour [is uncomfortable]. You are just looking at a screen.
There is no interaction.
"With the icon-sized [picture] on desktops, the biggest issue is
that the eye contact isn't there. I am looking at a picture of you,
but you aren't looking at me. If you think this isn't a bit
difficult, try this experiment: Start a conversation with a person
and don't look him in the eye. It's a very unnerving experience."
The report notes that for all of the improvements in technology,
video collaboration is far from being a mainstream tool. A recent
survey by InformationWeek Analytics found that while 40 percent of
organizations report some level of desktop videoconferencing, only
13 percent report widespread deployment, a quarter are still
considering it, and 21 percent have no interest. "I can't blame
them," Healey says. "Almost every organization has bought, tested,
or snuck in some type of video system, whether it's a full room or
group of rogue cameras. And many have ended up gathering dust."
For the learning executive considering telepresence, Healy has a
couple of warnings. The first is: Demand a full-length
demonstration, not just a demo. "I have been sitting through demos
for 20 years," he says. "They always work. They always seem cool.
But sit for two hours. Have a real meeting. I have demo-ed some of
these systems. In one case, I sat in a [telepresence session] for
four hours. It's like having a real [in-person] meeting. You are
tired and a little burnt out, but it isn't the same kind of uneasy
feeling you get with a virtual reality and computer animation. In
telepresence, especially with the eye contact and the sound
quality- when it's done right - it is much more comfortable.
The other caveat is, of course, cost. "If learning departments are
considering this, they have to know that it is expensive," Healey
warns. "There is no cheaping out on it. Early videoconferencing
rooms typically ran more than $100,000. And real telepresence
systems start at $30,000 today, with a fully functional room that
seats eight to 16 people hitting $300,000 - per site. The high-def
cameras, video screens, and integrated sound all drive up costs, as
do the infrastructure and private network upgrades that are often
To help with the decision process, the InformationWeek Analytics
report included an ROI Modeler that estimates certain costs and
savings. "In our ROI Modeler, we talked about meeting and travel
costs," Healey explains. "But you also are improving communication
and retention in the learning experience. When you look at
telepresence in the continuum of education, if it is part of the
mix, if the wrapup training is there, and if the kick-off meeting
is there, it improves the entire process. It's difficult to put all
of that into the ROI model. If it started as an IT experiment for
the upper level of the organization, and then it is opened to
everyone, and training says, 'I'm going to use it,' then training
is more effective."
In cost-driven organizations, a typical CFO might ask: Are there
enough vendors? "Right now I think there are," Healey replies. "It
would be nice if there were a couple more, but the problem is that
when you add more vendors, you start entering into that messy
free-for-all where there are issues with interoperability.
"Having big vendors like Cisco and Polycom means that they get into
a super powers kind of battle, and the issue is interoperability.
For the learning department in a large organization,
interoperability might not be a big issue. But, for example, if you
are a member association and you have member companies [with
different technologies], then it becomes a big problem. At this
price point, however, you can't have a million players."
"Being able to tie in lower-end systems is also important," Healey
writes in the report. "Most telepresence systems already have some
basic connectivity, and Cisco has even announced basic WebEx
connectivity. But not everyone is buying into the usefulness of
doing this. Demonstrating how telepresence's operational savings
will balance out its required higher capital expenditure is a
critical ROI challenge for the technology and can be the key to
getting a green light for a project. But many companies' accounting
practices make it difficult to combine opex and capex budgets when
making savings arguments.
"Creating a point ROI model just for telepresence may work for some
organizations, but we recommend bundling it into a broader model
istockphoto.com that includes multiple communication options. Bring
in all the options - telepresence, traditional videoconferencing,
desktop Web conferencing - and you get a framework for total cost
analysis that will help you paint the big picture savings for your
CEO and CFO."