Virtual meetings in your pocket?

We all know that setting up the environment for virtual meetings or training sessions involves a commitment in terms of hardware, software or both. Or does it? Genius Room hope to persuade us otherwise, with the launch of their new PocketMeeting service.
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The premise is pretty simple. You go to their website, enter your credit card details and for $5.00 you get 24 hours of access to your own screen sharing environment. It doesn’t feature voice or chat, or in fact anything other than screensharing, but that’s the beauty of it really. No big learning curve, no complex tool to remember, no vendor specific plug ins (although it does rely on you having Java installed).
If you occasionally have the need to share presentations or other desktop materials, and are happy to use conference calling or VoIP for the audio, PocketMeeting is certainly worth investigating.

Increasing use of web conferencing for sales training

Cites a report from Citrix which shows how the use of web conferencing for sales training is on the increase.

Increasing sales effectiveness with online training, a new report from Citrix Online, highlights just what an important role web conferencing is playing in sales training. Using data from a recent Manasco Marketing Group survey, the report shows there is a significant rise in the number of sales organisations that rely on online training to stay competitive:

  • “The survey data reveals a considerable jump in the number of sales organizations that are conducting online training (54 percent last year compared to 70 percent this year).”
  • “56 percent report that they have integrated onsite and online training for sales development.”
  • “Online training is more frequently utilized for product updates and refresher sales training.”
  • “Organisations are more than twice as likely to hold sales development activities more often when they utilise online training. A full 20 percent of respondents report that they conduct online training sessions once a week or once every two weeks.”
  • “The survey results presented a nearly universal consensus – with 94 percent of respondents in agreement – that limiting disruptions to the sales process is an important consideration when designing a sales training program. And for 78 percent of respondents, travel costs also play a significant role in making sales training decisions.”
With most sales staff based away from a central office, it’s easy to see why online training is likely to be popular for this audience. Nevertheless, in my experience, this is a tough and demanding audience to work with, so it’s encouraging to see how successfully this change has been implemented.

Exploring the arguments for online meetings

A comparison between face-to-face and live online communication, in terms of both effectiveness and efficiency.

I’ve been collecting my arguments for and against face-to-face and live online communication, in terms of both effectiveness and efficiency. I’m making no distinction between meetings, webinars and training sessions. Here goes:

Which medium is more effective, i.e. is more likely to help you achieve your goals?
 
Face-to-face communication can be more effective than online communication because:
  • discussions can be more freeform and spontaneous;
  • on the rare occasions when a lengthy meeting really is needed, this is likely to be more comfortably achieved face-to-face;
  • you can engage in activities that require participants to be in the same physical space.
Live online communication can be more effective than face-to-face communication because:
  • meetings can be held as soon as the need arises, without waiting for participants to travel to a central location;
  • it will be easier to attract the participation of experts who are geographically dispersed;
  • a greater degree of anonymity makes it easier for more retiring participants to contribute;
  • the text chat ‘back channel’ enables networking and collaboration to take place even during other activities (especially presentations);
  • the ability to record sessions makes it possible for those who miss the live event to still gain some benefit.
Which medium is more efficient, i.e. will use less of your resources?
 
Face-to-face communication can be more efficient than online communication because:
  • it does not depend on the availability of technology – connectivity, devices, etc.;
  • the skills in facilitating face-to-face meetings are more widely available.
Live online communication canl be more efficient than face-to-face communication because:
  • it is cheaper in terms of travel, subsistence, etc.;
  • it takes less time in terms of travel, etc.;
  • it is more environmentally friendly;
  • it encourages shorter meetings;
  • if some element of a meeting is not relevant, you can easily do something else.

I’m bound to have missed something important here, so comments please.

Sometimes you can try too hard

Explores the idea that webinars don’t have to be highly interactive to be effective.

Last week I mused on the difference between a webinar and a virtual classroom session (see So what exactly is a webinar?). It became clear that a webinar was essentially a presentation by an expert on a specialist topic, much like the sessions you’ll experience at any conference. Although a webinar is, more often than not, a learning event, it is quite different in character – and in the expectations of participants – to a workshop or typical small group classroom session.
 
I’m reminded of a friend who attended an Open University summer school a few years back. Although this person was a trainer by background, and used to facilitating highly-interactive workshops, they were frustrated with the ‘time wasted’ on collaborative activities during lectures by eminent academics. What this person wanted was to sit and listen, to reflect, and perhaps take a few notes. Interaction could come later, in informal discussion with other participants.
 
For this reason, I was particularly interested in what Ken Molay had to say in Must your webinar be interactive? on The Webinar Blog:
 
“You have to disassociate yourself from your own predefined concept of what indicates success or failure of your presentation and associate yourself instead with the way your audience wants to take in the information. So instead of vainly trying more and more interaction techniques on unwilling subjects, eliminate the remainder of your polls. Stop urging the audience to answer questions via the chat window. Instead, concentrate on supplying detailed and valuable information in more of a straightforward discourse. The important thing is not to sound disappointed or to make an indication that this isn’t your preferred method of presentation. If they want to hear a lecture, then by golly you’re going to give them a great lecture!”
 
Sometimes you really can try too hard.

Learning footprint calculator

Thanks to Jane Hart for drawing our attention to this interesting little tool. The calculator has been around for a couple of years, but it’s now back in a new version. This latest edition allows users to generate a PDF of their report so they can share findings with colleagues and help put the ‘learning footprint’ into the business case for a greater use of web conferencing and other forms of elearning.

So what exactly is a webinar?

Examines the meaning of the term ‘webinar’ and contrasts this with a virtual classroom.

You might think it’s obvious – a webinar is, of course, a web seminar. But what is a seminar? I typed ‘define:seminar’ into Google hoping to get some clarification:

  • Any meeting for an exchange of ideas.
  • A course offered for a small group of advanced students.
  • A form of academic instruction.
  • A class that has a group discussion format rather than a lecture format.
  • Lecture and dialogue allowing participants to share experiences in a particular field under the guidance of an expert discussion leader.
  • Informal discussion and analysis of intellectual material in small groups.
How about the Oxford Concise Dictionary?
  • A small class at a university, etc. for discussion and research.
  • A short intensive course of study.
  • A conference of specialists.
Some characteristics come through clearly from these definitions:
  • That a seminar is a learning event.
  • That, although a seminar may well include an element of lecture/presentation, interactivity, typically in the form of discussion, is also important (see the words I have italicised).
  • That a seminar is likely to be pitched at an advanced/specialised audience.
So, that’s a seminar. But to what extent are these characteristics carried through into the typical webinar? Well, in many cases, very well – a web seminar is exactly what you get. But of course, sometimes the objective is only superficially a learning one – the real purpose is to familiarise you with a product or service, or to enhance the reputation of a consultant or supplier. It’s marketing dressed as education. I’m not  implying that this makes the session any less ‘pure’ or ‘ethical’, just that it only partially meets the definition of a seminar.
 
It’s also possible that a webinar will include little or no discussion, or any other form of interaction for that matter. Essentially, it’s a lecture/presentation, just like you’ll see at a conference. There may well be a learning objective for the presentation, but the event is certainly not instructional. If learning does takes place, it is because the participant is grabbed by the content of the presentation and is prepared to take it forward in some way – just as this can happen when you read a book, listen to a radio broadcast or watch a TV documentary.
 
Although a webinar clearly can have a learning purpose, I still believe it is useful to distinguish this from a full-on, virtual classroom session. Just as there’s a clear distinction between a conference and a training course in the bricks and mortar world, there’s the same difference when you move online. It is almost impossible to conceive of a virtual classroom session that is not interactive and that doesn’t have a clear educational/training purpose. It’s the world of the teacher/trainer rather than the lecturer/presenter. And whereas a webinar can have any number of participants, a virtual classroom will only work with small numbers.
 
For that reason, at onlignment, we make a clear separation between the webinar and the virtual classroom. They require different skills and obey different rules.

Mixing media: happiness or headache?

Describes the problems that can arise when you mix verbal and visual channels.

We are fortunate in that our brain is able to focus on verbal and visual inputs simultaneously. Although these inputs are likely to be linked, i.e. the verbal input often relates directly to the visual in some way, different parts of the brain are used to process these two channels. Where we are less fortunate is that the brain finds it uncomfortable to deal with more than one verbal input or more than one visual input at a time.
As a facilitator in a web conferencing environment, we have two main ways in which we can provide verbal input – using our voice or using text on slides. We also have more than one way of communicating visually, the most common being the graphics that we display on slides and (if we’re lucky) a real-time video feed of us presenting.
Happiness
Happpiness for the participant means:

  • you present using your voice, while you display a graphic;
  • you display text on the screen, keeping quiet while they read it;
  • you present using a video feed, but with no accompanying slide.


It’s headache time for the participant when:

  • you talk over a slide full of text (the participant doesn’t know whether to listen or read; because they can do the latter much faster than the former, they’ll probably tune out what you’re saying);
  • you run a video alongside a sequence of pictorial slides (not such a disaster, but chances are your video image will draw more attention than the graphics, because it’s moving).

These rules might seem common sense, but they can’t be, because they’re commonly broken. The result? Presenters communicating happily, participants with headaches. Not a formula for success.

So how important really is body language?

A chance to see a myth-busting video from Creativity Works.

Conventional wisdom, i.e. that which is passed along without question, has for some time been that body language generates more than half of the meaning in face-to-face communication. This idea never seemed to make any sense to me, but it was always conveyed as science, so I was prepared to accept it, albeit reluctantly.
For anyone using web conferencing (unless you’re lucky enough to be using video), the absence of body language cues was therefore seen as a major obstacle – even with two-way voice communication, you’d be missing more than half the action. So, it was some relief to see this entertaining video from Creativity Works on what they call The Mehrabian Myth.

So, another piece of pop psychology bites the dust. We seem to be entering a second age of enlightenment.

The technology is ready. Are you?

I recently read this excellent post over on The Webinar Blog, considering some of the difficulties involved with the use of Voice over IP (VoIP). I would encourage you to read Ken’s post, and I agree with most of what he says in as much as they’re all real issues, but I can’t help feeling that the root of the problem isn’t being addressed.
None of the issues raised are really about VoIP itself, which is a relatively mature and very usable technology. Internet speeds are continually increasing, and the quality achievable with VoIP is at least as good as a regular telephone.
As is so often the case with technology solutions, the real issue is with the implementation. Too often, the implementation is considered a success once the software has been rolled out across the organisation. In fact this is when the real work should begin.
Employees must be provided with the right equipment; if you want to use VoIP, make sure they have good quality headsets. Ensure that every user knows how to set up and use that equipment. Despite what vendors tell you, none of the tools are so intuitive that people can be expected to use them without some support and training. Invest the time at this point to check that everything technical works, and I do mean everything. Set up a pre-recorded webinar and get every user to log in and make sure they can navigate through it and that their audio and video works. This is a much simpler thing to deal with if you plan for it and ramp up your helpdesk support for the testing period. It’s certainly easier than trying to deal with the issue on an ad-hoc basis once someone is supposed to be taking part in a live session.
Even with this much better level of implementation, it still pays to have a fallback for every session that is being run. If you’re using VoIP, always make sure there is an alternative conference call number available. When a problem does occur, you don’t want to waste valuable time trying to fix it if you can provide everyone with an alternative.
The tools are there to make communication easier, and they do work. Let’s make sure that we invest the time in making sure our people really have what they need to use the tools effectively.

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Death by webinar – what a way to go

A summary of Alan Levine’s rant about bad webinars.

In his excellent CogDog blog (how crazy does that sound?), Alan Levine reflects on some really horrific webinar experiences he has had. He sets out his Five ways to run a deadly online seminar

  • Make it hard to even get inside.
  • Don’t let your participants know who else is there.
  • Make it hard or impossible for the audience to communicate with each other.
  • Don’t greet the audience or make them feel welcome.
  • Ignore your audience, make ’em wait ’til you fill the hour with your voice, do not involve them at all.
Thanks Alan for some great tips for truly terrible webinars.
Have you got any webinar horror stories you’d like to share? We’d love to hear.