Videoconferencing is great for getting people in different time zones to communicate in real time, often on short notice to save the time and expense involved in travel. However, as unified communications, including videoconferencing, grows, businesses will find other value in the technology, too.
"The value of unified communications will move from ROI to business continuity and productivity. It's no longer about the ROI of videoconferencing versus travel. The business still has to run," said Andy Miller, CEO of Polycom, speaking to reporters and industry analysts in San Francisco recently.
To be sure, the return on investment is proven by the fact that people don't have to buy an airplane ticket and spend a day traveling just to meet someone in person. Travel avoidance also reduces the corporate carbon footprint. But, Miller said, videoconferencing on systems such as Polycom's means business is not interrupted by SARS outbreaks, post-9/11 airport security, or volcanic ash clouds.
"There is this increasing awareness that companies need to have emergency backup plans in terms of how they can contact their employees and maintain their operations in the event of weather or other disasters," said Bob O'Donnell, a VP at research firm IDC.
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O'Donnell also cited the volcanic eruption in Iceland last year, in which ash drifted over Western Europe, grounding flights, as an example of a sudden turn of events that interrupts business. He also cited the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo., this year as other examples.
"Something like video communications allows people to maintain a very close tie with colleagues and other coworkers, so that's recognized as having a real value to people," he said.
IDC forecasts revenue from unified communications and collaboration technology to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 18.3% to $44 billion by 2015, up from $19 billion in 2010.
Biotechnology firm Genentech is a big user of videoconferencing, especially following its acquisition by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche in 2008, where it went from being a company of 12,000 employees to a company of 86,000 employees.
"People don't want to get on a plane anymore," said David Smith, an infrastructure engineer for Genentech in North America.
Today, Roche, with Genentech, has 600 videoconference rooms, 80% of which are high-definition-ready, and the company issued 17,000 Apple iPad 2s to employees to enable videoconferencing when workers are mobile, Smith said. Rooms are typically busiest between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, so that workers in California can videoconference with colleagues who are at the end of their workday in Switzerland.
While videoconferencing and other use of UC tools will continue to grow, O'Donnell says there are still issues of interoperability that will have to be addressed so that systems from Polycom, Cisco Systems, LifeSize, ShoreTel--or infrastructure vendors such as Vidyo--can communicate with each other. There is some use of common standards, and Polycom often touts its lead role in the Open Visual Communications Consortium, a standards body. But interconnecting systems often requires the services of someone from the IT department to make it work, and the idea behind improving the user experience with unified communications is that it's so simple that anyone can set up a videoconference without bothering the IT staff.