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IT Decisions – Teleconferencing

Rory Nealon is one chief financial officer pleased to be doing less travelling these days. The CFO of information services and call centre operator Conduit has taken to holding his quarterly analyst and investor briefings by phone conference and has found it’s a lot less hassle than road-showing around Europe and North America.

“We couldn’t always do a road show at the end of every quarter but now we can talk to people after each set of results. We’re finding phone conferencing allows us to communicate more quickly after the results – and reach people who might not have attended a road show,” he says.

Nealon is just one of a growing number of finance professionals who find there are benefits to staying put and using technology to create virtual meetings, whether for investor relations or other purposes. Suppliers of video, phone and web conferencing technology found usage of their services went through the roof last autumn – in the week after 11 September, demand for BT’s video conferencing service jumped 85%. It has since settled down to a third above its pre-September level and is growing steadily.

Not surprisingly, the cash benefits of teleconferencing are the first to catch a finance director’s eye. David Gladding, MD of ACT Teleconferencing, says: “The cost of hosting a typical meeting with six people travelling to a single destination in the UK is £1,600. The cost for holding the same meeting by video conference with the highest sound and picture quality is £600.”

In the past, a combination of cost, inconvenience and worries about the technology have put people off teleconferencing. But wider experience with computers and mobile phones means there are fewer technophobes, and, critically, there is a new generation of workers who feel it is perfectly natural to communicate online.

Each of three main technologies has its own niche. For those who are quite happy just to hear the sound of each others’ voices, phone conferencing is the lowest-cost and easiest-to-use option. Services such as BT’s MeetMe enable a group of participants in multiple locations to set up and hold a meeting within a few hours.

Video conferencing enables participants in two or more locations to see and hear one another during a virtual meeting. The highest quality video conferences take place in special suites configured to make it look as though the remote participants are in the same room. Desktop-to-desktop video conferencing is cheaper. It involves rigging a video camera up to a PC and linking via a high-speed phone line.

The third choice is web conferencing. This enables two or more people in different places to work simultaneously on their computer screens with the same documents – such as spreadsheets – while talking over a voice link. It is also possible to combine web with video conferencing so participants see and speak to one another through one or more windows on their screen while working with documents in others.

Teleconferencing isn’t always second best. Nealon says: “One advantage of our phone conferences is that people can’t interrupt us. We have a chance to deliver our message with no questions. When we’ve finished, a conference operator comes online and fields questions. And because it’s recorded, people who couldn’t listen in live can hear what was said later.”

Technology is also being used to talk to employees. Carlos Criado-Perez, chief executive of FTSE-100 supermarket chain Safeway, uses video conferencing four times a year to speak to 300 key staff. His address is followed by a question-and-answer session. Alongside the cost savings, Criado-Perez says a key benefit is the ability to deliver a consistent message.

Even the most enthusiastic of the growing army of teleconferencing vendors don’t pretend the technology is an alternative to all meetings. There will always be times when it is important to meet. But enthusiasts argue technology could replace a large proportion of face-to-face meetings.

Martin Brommell, global marketing manager at BT Conferencing, says three-quarters of the two million phone conferences the company hosted last year replaced traditional meetings.

Some traditional business meetings may be dying out. When Jon Pickard, financial controller at Thirdspace, an interactive television technology provider, decided to move his firm’s travel and expenses management to a web-based service provider, he conducted all negotiations using the phone, email and by accessing the web. Not a single sales person crossed his threshold.

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