Quality Counts

By David Strom  |  Posted 2010-08-17 Print this article Print

Video conferencing technologies are great for productive meeting that cuts across continents, time zones and cultures -- if you pay attention to the details ahead of time.

At EdisonLearning, a New York City-based firm that operates hundreds of charter schools around the country,  student information manager Carrie Wells is a big proponent of virtual meetings. She uses these meetings both to connect to her team and to provide training and support for dozens of school administrators using a common software platform. 

“I always let the participants see the names of all the others who are on the call,” she says. “When I take attendance, I don’t just read the list. I also thank them for participating. I try to greet each member with something special so they feel welcome and part of the group.”
• Focus on the audio quality. Yes, the video gets the most attention, but the workhorse of any virtual meeting is the audio connection. This is where the free or cheap products fall apart. For example, while Skype is free (or nearly so), you do get what you pay for in terms of dropped calls, poor audio or video quality, or worse. “Sometimes people appear to be offline when they are actually online and waiting for the meeting to start,” says Campus Crusade’s Hertzler. 

EvriChart’s Maro also had problems with the audio. “I attended a virtual class where there were occasional audio problems for some of the users, and it was extremely disruptive,” he recalls. “That’s why we always use an integrated PSTN [public switched telephone network] conference call for any meeting with customer participation.” Others use their telephone system’s audio-conferencing abilities as the audio track for their virtual meetings.

“If audio quality is poor, other factors must be better to compensate,” says Hertzler. “For example, initial trust relationships must be better; familiarity with the other participants’ speaking habits must be better; closer cultural affinity must be better; or the complexity and difficulty of the topic must be lower.”

• Be prompt. Start the video conference on time and make sure participants connect early. “Rather than spend the first 10 minutes waiting for people to log in, I try to start all my meetings promptly,” says EdisonLearning’s Wells. “The participants have learned to connect a few minutes early to the meeting. I also put up a slide with the agenda and ask if there are other topics that we need to cover.” It also helps to use a system that can easily connect participants without a lot of software downloading or complex screens.

• Limit meeting size. Keep the group small if at all possible. The ideal virtual group in which you want all the participants to collaborate is five or fewer, according to meeting producers.

“Beyond five, certain individuals won’t speak up without a facilitator drawing them out,” says Campus Crusade’s Hertzler. One-way broadcasts are more suitable for larger groups. “If we have more than 15 participants,” adds Wells, “people don’t want to talk for fear of interrupting each other.”

The teen residential treatment facility at Sorenson’s Ranch, in Koosharem, Utah, has begun using the PresentAll video conferencing service to connect its young people with their parents and counselors. “We used to do these sessions by phone, but the parents couldn’t read the body and facial language of their children,” says Layne Bagley, the admissions director at the ranch. “With video conferencing, we can have much more effective sessions.”

Bagley was surprised at how easy it was to implement the system, which is used to produce up to 25 small group-therapy sessions and two workshops a week. “We are pretty remote—three hours from the Salt Lake City airport—so video conferencing has proven to be a really great way to connect with families.”

• Use a facilitator, if necessary. Some of the best meetings have a facilitator who is not a stakeholder in the outcome. Such a person can take the role of a dispassionate leader and observer to bring out the best from the participants.
“The facilitator has to establish the expectations about when questions will be answered, and how and when they will be addressed during the meeting,” says Peak Technical’s Elmont. This person can be an “agenda enforcer” as well, helping to keep people focused and on track.

Clearly, running a virtual meeting isn’t only about the technology. In fact, it can require even better speaking and meeting skills than an in-person meeting does. 


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