Telepresence, first experience of

Yesterday I mentioned telepresence in my blog and later in the day went to a telepresence meeting – my first experience of using this technology. I'd read one definition of it in a white paper from Frost and Sullivan a consultancy. They say it is

… a tightly integrated set of visual, audio and network technologies and services that together deliver an immersive, life-like communication experience. The goal is to reproduce the best characteristics of direct human interaction that result from a face-to-face meeting.

The value of the medium is said to lie in the cost savings to a company. Although there is a heavy investment in installing the technology and keeping it running – recieved wisdom suggests that this is more than paid off in terms of direct and indirect costs of travelling to meet people. Additionally in their white paper Frost and Sullivan suggest that there are also green gains to be had from teleconferencing.

The definition doesn't give the full flavor of the experience. I was meeting with a person in San Jose – the opposite coast to me – which saved one of us traveling the full distance although both of us had, in fact, to travel to the site of the telepresence set up. (In his case from San Francisco to San Jose) – so a certain amount of travel was involved.

I found the medium good but I'm not so sure that is reproduces the 'best characteristics of direct human interaction'. First, I didn't get any eye-contact from the person I was meeting with. I don't know if that was the technology, or if it was because he is someone who didn't make eye contact. (Also he was working on his computer at the same time as we were talking). Second, there's no ability – obviously – to shake hands, exchange business cards, judge height, etc those clues that start to build rapport. For some reason that is ok in a telephone conversation, but in a 'meeting' situation it seemed a bit of a hurdle. Third, because it is an expensive medium to run it opens and closes on booked time. At one level this is not that different from a room booking, but in that situation people can continue the conversation as they drift out of the room.

For whatever reason I found it odd that I could see him but I couldn't see myself i.e. what he was seeing about me. Clearly in a face to face meeting I can't see myself as the person I am speaking to sees me but I've got used to Skype where I can see my video of myself as well as the video of the person I am speaking with.

Beyond the immediate experience I wondered how this technology will change the design of organizations. A few thoughts and questions sprang to mind:

  • The physical space question as the equipment has to be housed, but also there is the work process difference – the meeting has to be more 'in the meeting'.
  • People are much less able to continue discussions outside the meeting. Does take a particular/different type of skill to make sure that telepresence meetings are 'successful'
  • How are power differentials affected by telepresence – are they ironed out or reinforced if some people are 'live' and some people are 'screen' in meetings?
  • Do people behave differently when they are on screen rather than in the room with others?

Cisco's brochure on telepresence has a quote saying:

"Cisco TelePresence will reinvent the way we work. .. In this day and age, it's simply a smarter way of going about our business." Robert Dixon, Senior Vice President and Global CIO, PepsiCo

Maybe it's too early to say whether it will 'reinvent the way we work' – my brief experience suggests that it has the capacity to change a lot of things, and from my scant research I haven't seen predictions or experience on the organization design implications this.

Given that Telepresence Global Market, report estimates the market value of telepresence at $396.2 million for 2009, and forecasts this to reach $825.9 million in 2015 it would be worth thinking through the use of both it and similar types of technologies on work and organization design, if only to maximize the investment in them – I can't imagine that savings on travel costs, and getting green gains are the only benefits. Neither can I imagine that there aren't some downsides.