Feds and Videoconferencing: Did Not See That Coming

Last month, a group called the Telework Exchange came out with a report on videoconferencing in the federal government. The study prompted headlines in the federal IT press such as this one, in Federal Computer Week: “Videoconferencing slow to gain ground in government.” Not necessarily what someone in the pro AV industry wants to read on a fall morning (especially considering the challenges integrators currently face doing business with government, what with talk of “fiscal cliffs” and everything).

The Telework Exchange is a public-private partnership that’s been around for several years supporting initiatives that promote telework and mobility for federal workers. And the federal government, for its part, has shown interest in programs and technologies that allow employees to work remotely. Among recent measures was the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, “To require the head of each executive agency to establish and implement a policy under which employees shall be authorized to telework, and for other purposes.” (Here’s a PDF of the law, if you’ve never read a law.) And in November 2011, President Obama issued an Executive Order to promote efficient spending that made reference to videoconferencing as an alternative to travel.

Which brings us to the Telework Exchange study (you can get it here; sign-up required). It says only 36 percent of federal employees surveyed use videoconferencing or video chats at least once a month (hey, they don’t text-message either–only 22 percent said they text). The study was underwritten by Blue Jeans Network, whose mission is to bridge disparate videoconferencing systems so that anyone can videocall anyone else, regardless of the system they use, from a full-blown telepresence room to a webcam. That’s absolutely the direction videoconferencing should go, but if Blue Jeans was hoping feds were struggling with interoperability, it didn’t come out strong in the survey: Only 33 percent said incompatible platforms was the biggest hurdle to widespread videoconferencing use, behind such other hurdles as a lack of solutions available to employees (which I take to mean, they’re not issued cameras, etc.), bandwidth, general lack of use, cultural issues, and more.

To be honest, I was a little surprised by the smallish 36 percent figure. I didn’t see that coming. But then I thought, “Why?” Do you videocall people regularly? Do the people around you at work? The Telework Exchange surveyed a small sample of federal workers, apparently representative of the workforce as a whole, not just the tech-savvy ones. So is 36 percent actually a lot? Do 1 in 3 of your co-workers videocall someone at least once a month or sit in a videoconference?

More telling, perhaps, are some of the other figures in the study, like the one where 76 percent didn’t think their agencies were using videoconferencing to its fullest potential or the 84 percent who said its use will rise over the next five years. The study is also a reaffirmation of all the benefits that folks in pro AV have been pitching to clients for the last several years: better collaboration, remote training, less travel, cost savings. The federal workers surveyed view them as benefits, too.

But ultimately, what I take away from this study isn’t about technology or interoperability or potential benefits. It’s about access. 76 percent don’t think videoconferencing is being used to its fullest potential, most likely, because most of them aren’t using it. They sit at desks like the one you may be sitting at, with a PC and a phone, but no webcam. Maybe they gather in a conference room quarterly and patch into a remote presentation. But how do we get all those folks access to regular face-to-face communications?

There will probably never be a time when there’s a videophone (or equivalent) on every desk in every industry, including government. But there has to be a conversation about getting them to more users. Clearly, that conversation includes the “how” (interoperability) but it really needs a good “why?” I think we think we have a nice list of “whys” (see benefits above), but do they always translate when the goal is to make video calling more like phone calling? Perhaps some do.

It’s a classic case of “solution” above “technology” and a challenge the industry faces is defining a solution that touches more potential users. Pro AV does the room system really well–and there are lots of rooms that could still use a well integrated videoconferencing system. But what about beyond the room? It’s not enough for the president or anyone else to urge the use of videoconferencing if all we’re talking about is hooking up two auditoriums so that everyone in one auditorium doesn’t have to hop a plane to the other auditorium. It may help, but to what extent?

Sure, the conversation starts with videoconferencing technology in auditoriums, or board rooms, or classrooms, but it needs to include questions like, “And do you have teleworkers who might need to access your meetings remotely?” “Besides online training, how else do you think employees could use videoconferencing on a more frequent basis?” “In addition to the telepresence room, if we could give you a videophone on your desk, would it help you do your job better, and who would you call from your videophone?”

If we’re convinced we’re talking about solutions that can dramatically improve how people communicate (and I think we are), we should shoot for near-ubiquity–or at least better than 36 percent. How will we make that case?

About Brad Grimes

Brad Grimes is the Director of Communications for InfoComm International and the former editor of Pro AV magazine. He has been writing about technology for more than 25 years.

One Response to “Feds and Videoconferencing: Did Not See That Coming”

  1. I don’t know why you find this surprising.
    You are asking the wrong questions to the wrong people.
    1. The vast majority of government workers do only what is necessary to get by. And the majority of these persons generally are not “tech savy” and find this form of technology not needed or intimidating. Some of this can be attributed to the age of workers. Kids out of school and under age 30 have grown up with this, while the majority of the work force has not. I am not saying it is wrong, just reality.
    This also applies to even the private sector even in very large companies.