Sunday, 15 April 2012

Cost effective global teleconferencing

Technology tips for global virtual teams

Updated 30 June 2012

Whether your team purpose is business or pleasure, social activism or intellectual debate, you need to get technology working for you so you don’t have to be isolated, or fly half way round the world every time you want to engage.

I find myself engaging with global virtual teams amongst my corporate and academic clients, in my volunteer work as a diversity and men’s development activist (sitting on an international board and chairing a global diversity committee), and in staying in touch with family and friends worldwide.

Here are five tips for easy and cost-effective global virtual conferences based on my experience.

Pick your teleconference company carefully

You don’t have to use expensive and complex pre-booked systems – nowadays all you do is create your own (free) unique PIN, give all participants the dial-in number and PIN, and they are billed separately for the call along with their regular phone bill, at a price well below that of a local cell phone call. And you should also get free call recording and screen sharing thown into the bargain.

While there are easy national free teleconference options in the United States, these are not free in many other countries and costs vary widely.

In South Africa, our national telephone company charges extraordinarily high fees for its otherwise-excellent teleconference facility. Did you know that each participant pays R1.50 +VAT per minute for Telkom teleconferences? I’ve found PowWowNow to deliver the same quality for little more than half the price, and they include valuable free extras, like recording the conference and online screen sharing.

Use global providers at local rates

International teleconferences work beautifully nowadays – from the best providers users get a list of local access numbers, and people around the world can dial into the same call, each paying essentially local rates for the global call – for example via PowWowNow.com or FreeConferenceCall.com. Billing, call recording and screen sharing can be done just as described above.

Free internet screen sharing complements teleconferences beautifully

There are excellent tools for screen sharing, improving all the time, provided all callers have access to the internet. Essentially, at no extra cost, you can show a live presentation, spreadsheet, or virtual white board and let all participants view the same thing on their own computer or smartphone screens. For example, Skype offers easy screen sharing (just click the “+” button in the middle of the call control panel and choose "screen sharing").

Shared control: The dance of many mice on one screen

The Web Conferencing software that comes free with PowWowNow allows us all to share control of the screen as well – so you can update my spreadsheet while we are discussing it.

Cisco's Webex brings professional quality to small groups for free

"With an eye on small and midsize business users, Cisco adds mobile tools, a persistent free account, and collaboration features to its online meetings suite." - says Enterprise 2.0.

As of 30 June, I'm trying out Cisco's Webex Online Meeting software using one of their new free accounts. They limit your meetings to three people at a time - but it looks like we get access to a well-integrated suite of services not generally offered by other free services:
  • Web-based voice and video
  • Good online meeting scheduling integrated with your personal calendaring system
  • File storage and sharing - so you can meet with documentation at hand
  • Mobile access to all meetings
  • Shared whiteboard and/or presentation space
  • Automated recording and storage of recordings
  • Good meeting follow up systems
I'll report back further when I've tried it out more thoroughly. (Note for South African users: when you first visit their site, it seems to suggest you can't sign up unless you are from the US or a select list of mainly European countries. Do persist (pick any one to start with) and later you will be presented with a comprehensive list of countries to pick from.

Skype group audio conferencing is ready for the big time, but not video

I’ve found Skype to be a great free way of global teleconferencing. It’s just like telephone conferencing, except sometimes the quality dips, and one extra feature is that you see the profile icon for each speaker flashing when they actually talk – helps with tracking the geography of who is who on the call.

However, group video conferencing on Skype is not yet ready for the big time - at least globally. Typical internet connections are not yet fast and reliable enough, and my trials have ended in frustration and "broken telephones." I suggest you either invest in higher-end videoconferencing technology or stay with audio and screen sharing.

Cool tools for avoiding time zone errors

You have to be careful when organising global calls – not everybody can keep track of the time zones, not to mention the impact of different daylight savings time changes creating havoc with regular meeting times. Two easy ways to avoid ambiguity about the meeting time for each participant in their own time zone:
  • Announce meetings using TimeandDate.com’s free “Event Time Announcer” – you can easily set up a unique web address with the meeting name, and the system generates the meeting time in each of at least 100 cities around the world.
  • Use a good global online calendar to book the meetings, such as Google Calendar – it will send bookings and reminders to each participant in their own local time zone.

Getting virtual teams to work does require good, simple, cost-effective technology, but technology is not enough on its own. Read more about leadership skills for virtual teams and teleconferences.

No comments:

Post a comment

You are welcome to comment on this blog - please contribute to the discussion.

Please type your comments in the box below. You will be required to log in to comment. This is because we have had spam problems.

Please note that in order to comment on this blog, you are required to accept our Blog Comments Policy