Saturday, December 19, 2009

Video Conferencing


When introducing Video Conferencing, it's as much about technology as it is about culture shift, patience of users, training, and proper planning. This is when IT staff need to be sales people as much as good technical people and work with staff who organize meetings to help them understand what it takes to make video meetings successful. All staff need to understand that it's a new technology that they'll need to learn, but that their investment will make a significant difference in productivity of meetings and bring remote staff closer together.

Understand Your Meeting Participants

Think about the types of meetings you have now and who is attending each. These are the types of rooms and meeting participants that we have planned for. It's safe to assume that this list is common among most medium-sized company or organization.

  • Full Video Conference Unit-equipped room - this can be a large or small conference room that has built-in equipment.
  • A single person with a notebook computer with camera, microphone and speakers (or a headset)
  • A single person with a notebook computers without a camera
  • A single person only on a phone or Skype (i.e. audio only)

Now consider the types of meetings you already have or want to have. Below are common combinations and ones my organization has regularly. The accompanying diagrams may help visualize the components and connections.

1. VC unit-equipped room to VC unit-equipped room: This is what video conferencing was designed for so this scenario is fairly easy to support and maintain. A direct point-to-point call will be most effective here. Easy, eh?

2. Two or three VC unit-equipped rooms, plus a few PC with cameras: This will require some kind of bridge, whether it's a VC unit with built-in bridging capability (e.g. a Lifesize Room) or a purpose-built bridge or Multipoint Control Unit or MCU. All the endpoints call into the bridge blah blah. A conference with just PC's falls into this category as well.

3. Small number of VC room units, some PCs with two way audio and video, some audio-only participants, and some one-way video and audio participants. An MCU or video bridge is required in this configuration.

4. Same as above, but with some people participating only as viewers, i.e. there is only a one-way audio and video stream available for some. This is less useful for traditional meetings, but is more common for trainings, or large-scale presentations, announcements, or shows.

The Tech

I won't go too deeply into the technology, as, in many ways, that's the easy part since you can control that easier than you can the people that need to be introduced to a new way of working and trained to use the tools and equipment.

There are a wide range of options for room-based systems from Cisco/Tandberg, Polycom, and Lifesize. Your choice of vendor will depend greatly on your budget and quality expectations. If you have money to burn and expect extremely high quality high definition video between mostly large offices, then Cisco and Polycom systems in a custom-built room (and a high-end MPLS network) are in your future. If you're like most companies and organizations, you're trying to do this on a budget, then LifeSize (what we chose) equipment on SDSL, T1's, and Ethernet-over-copper (no MPLS) might be the way to go. We get very good HD quality from 512 or 768 kbps calls.

If you want to do the video bridging in-house on a large scale, then be ready for significantly more costs. Multi-point Control Units (MCUs), firewall traversal units, and other central management systems are a necessity for large installations, but be ready for significant effort in setup and maintenance. There are hosting options, but the costs must be weighed carefully to determine the best fit.

The Whole Point is for Them to See Your Face

A piece of the puzzle that's very important, but often overlooked, is the conditions of the room you're installing room-based video conferencing equipment. Good lighting can make make a significant difference in the quality of the picture the other end sees in video meetings. Most video conferencing cameras are great at compensating for low light, but they can't fix all situations.

Things to consider:

  • Walls that the camera faces should be dark. Bright walls confuse the low-light compensation algorithms.
  • If you must have windows on the wall that the camera faces, block the light with good shades. Sun coming through the windows behind participants will confuse the low-light compensation algorithms.
  • Good overhead lights in the room make big difference. The other end needs to be able to see your face well in order for video conferencing to be worth-while.
  • Make sure the camera is near to eye level in the room and pointing at faces so people on the other end can see as many people as possible and that they see faces and not just backs or tops of heads.
  • Be sure to place the TV or projection so everyone in the room can see it comfortably and they're facing the camera when looking at the screen. People should be looking at each other through the video conferencing system as much as possible.

This page has some more useful hints about lighting and other general video conferencing etiquette.

Meeting Management

There's one more non-technical area to consider: meeting management. This refers to properly planning meetings by getting them started on-time, which gets more and more difficult as we add more technology to the mix, and being conscience of what the other end is seeing when you're in meetings. Having someone in charge of maintaing their room's view at each end greatly enhances the experience. This involves changing where the camera is pointing or zooming throughout the meeting if speakers change, there are lots of participants in a room and the room is big, and pausing meetings to point out problems on other ends of the video ("hey Chicago, we can only see your feet!") Haven't you experienced a video meeting where a person off-camera does most of the talking, or the speaker is a tiny head in the back of a room of forty people?

Good luck making the meetings in your office more productive and interesting.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Being Loved

Everyone wants to be loved, except maybe dentists, Voldemort and Greenpeace campaigners. Most people can't imagine that IT people care what people think about us (and, unfortunately, they're probably right, at least historically). But now that IT is becoming more of a strategic partner to the program side of the house and not just a pure service and support team, how IT gets along with other parts of an organization or company is more important than ever.

The more IT is seen as an ally and not an authoritarian foe, the more we can be involved in high impact, wide-ranging projects that span departments. Don't get me wrong, support and service are still key. In fact, doing these extremely well is what gets your foot in the door. Providing excellent support to all staff through friendly, accurate, and quick responses builds trust. Having very mature and functional systems and a well-trained user-base allows you to move to a higher level of support, to the providing solutions relationship plane. (We've actually taken the words "support" and "help" out of all job titles and replaced it with "solutions").

If users feel well supported and happy with their relationship with IT in the basic areas, such as email, printing, networking, file sharing, etc. then they will be comfortable with partnering with you on larger projects that more directly support the core mission. And once you have gained their trust, encourage users through constant communication to ask IT for help in all their technology work, even if they think it's too minor.

Everyone likes to think they're busy, but I encourage my staff to tell people that we're not that busy, even when we really are. I've found that if people think you're really busy then they'll not ask you for things unless they're an emergency. For some projects, the emergency level is too late. Being brought in at the beginning of a project is the only way to ensure proper participating and success.

So, to summarize:
1. A close relationship between IT and staff fosters understanding and cooperation.
2. IT can help with projects outside of the standard support role.
3. Staff can use the IT Department's expertise to develop ways to work more efficiently.
4. IT staff have more job satisfaction, higher morale, individual growth, and gain a broader perspective of the impact of their work.
5. IT is considered more of a strategic partner in program planning.

Keywords for IT staff: flexibility, follow-through, listening, attention, understanding and friendliness.

Let's get out there and do the little things excellently and have a bigger impact overall!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Consumer Products in the Enterprise

Non-profit organizations and companies alike have been struggling with control issues since the first personal computers hit the market. Competing with what's available at the local Best Buy and Apple store gets harder every year. The laptops are shinier and faster, the monitors are bigger, the phones are cooler, and freely available software is useful and well-made. A proliferation of online tools and software like Google Apps, Facebook, Open Office, Firefox, Skype, and Pandora Radio, not to mention all the slick apps that come with every new Mac, are as good as or better than anything traditionally provided by enterprise IT Departments.

So what's a CIO/IT Director to do? Build the walls higher! Dig a deeper moat! Call in the cannons and archers! Historically, these were the favorite tactics. But more and more we're taking a less confrontational approach to hardware and software choices. The change was hard, but inevitable. Opening firewalls for corporate email and calendars is becoming more common and necessary. Our users are able (and actually want) to work more and be more efficient when not plugged into the corporate LAN or WAN. Their iPhones are much more attractive to use than the clunky Blackberries that many IT Departments are still handing out. (Not to mention the savings to the environment if we only have to produce 1/2 the mobile phones.) The 7GB mailbox size and 12MB message size in Gmail are hard to compete with for a budget-strapped Exchange shop. The examples of consumer products outdistancing corporate-provided products are endless.


So how do we allow these consumer products and maintain the level of security we're used to? With a little flexibility, an analysis of the latest technologies, and some effort by a security tech it's entirely possible. For example, Google has an authentication API for its Apps product line that will allow logins to be passed to your own auth infrastructure--then you can control account creation, suspension and removal and password complexity and expiration. And the abilities of most major firewalls can be configured with a combination of DMZs and app tunnels to allow corporate email out to personal mobile devices. I wouldn't recommend these options for high-security operations, but businesses that want higher productivity from their employees could easily fit these and other options into their security models.

Budget Considerations

Besides the difficult-to-measure benefits of higher productivity, it's possible to experience concrete budget savings from taking advantage of consumer products in the enterprise. One way we (Greenpeace USA) have done this is, instead of providing mobile devices maintained by our IT Department, we reimburse staff who require them for their jobs a monthly amount to cover part of the monthly bill for their personal mobile device. We provide IMAP and POP service to our email as well as CalDAV for calendars that we help staff configure on their phones. We have a list of devices that we generally support but are flexible if someone brings in a phone not on the list if it does support the standards for communicating to the email and calendar server.

We also have many users that prefer to use their personal laptops over the ones we provide. We don't reimburse staff who do this, though it is under consideration, so the budget savings here is obvious. Some considerations here include whether or not the staff-owned equipment has proper anti-virus/anti-malware protection and is properly maintained and updated with the latest OS and other software versions.

Taking advantage of consumer products in the enterprise does require the loss of some control but with some patience, flexibility and lots of deep breathing the benefits can be enormous including increased morale of staff, cost savings and, not the least of which, the increased popularity of your IT Department.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Convio Summit takeaways

I spent a few days in November at the Convio Summit in Austin, TX with hundreds of fellow Convio customers and peers. These were my main takeaways from the experience:
1. Managing data is hard. From talking to other groups, I found that everyone struggles with issues of data cleanliness, integration, reporting, and duplicates. The best anyone can hope for is stabilization of systems, processes and guidelines that make up the overall decision support and functional systems. But stable systems require constant vigilance as requirements change, functional systems change, and the reliability of data acquired online and from external vendors is always questionable.
2. Choose functional systems based on functionality not technical reasons. The reason we struggle so much with data integration issues is that we have chosen to use functional systems (e.g. advocacy systems, email marketing, donor database, organizing database, etc.) that best fit the needs of the program not based on some need of the IT department. Having one system that did everything would make data integration much easier, but it's not worth the cost of not having the best systems for the program.
3. Many groups are using Convio's API's now, but few are doing it without consultants (Convio or otherwise). I saw lots of examples of interesting uses of Convio's API's but not many that were implemented solely by a groups internal staffing. This means that the implementation of the API's are too complex for non-profit IT types to understand (not likely), most groups don't have the staffing capacity to implement (more likely), or the ideas for implementing the API's are being generated by the consultants as part of a larger project. We rarely use consultants for this type of project work so I'm curious far we can take sophisticated API implementations before we need outside help. We've done some small-scale work with the single-sign-on, donation, and constituent API's but nothing large-scale yet.
4. Convio is viable and a good company to be invested in. They impressed me with their level of understanding of the non-profit market, their willingness to be open with their technology, road map, and existing faults. They have a corner on the market but realize that non-profit orgs are finicky and willing to jump ship quickly, which means they need to continue to innovate to stay competitive. They are a fairly large company (>250 employees) yet are somehow able to remain agile and flexible. And they listen to their clients. They've certainly heard the masses demand an open platform and are delivering well on their promise to integrate openness into all their product line.
5. Our structure consisting of IT as the technology hub of all online work is the most effective model for a grassroots advocacy- and fundraising-focused organization. I'm probably biased since I help develop this model in Greenpeace, but it is working well for us to have IT as the source of technical support, innovation, and data management for all departments that utilize online tools-for us, Online Fundraising, Online Communications, Campaigns, and Grassroots (online and offline organizing). Having these functions centralized gives us a broader understanding of the entire organization and enables utilize efficiencies of scale when designing and building new tools, analyzing data, or just figuring out out already-built functionality in a product works.