Video pays off in the enterprise

As costs come down and the technology improves, video is finally spurring easy and effective collaboration. (Plus -- 5 tips for building video culture in your organization.)

Man in suit videoconferencing on tablet
Credit: thinkstock

Fresh off a multi-year acquisition spree, the Dutch company Cimpress is embracing video in a big way.

At 19 brands and growing, Cimpress was struggling to help independently operated divisions collaborate. The company, which specializes in mass customization of products such as printed material, signage and promotional items, needed a way to bring far-flung employees together quickly to act as a global team without footing the bill for travel.

The usual enterprise communications toolbox -- email, instant messaging, web conferencing and the phone -- was fine for taking care of routine business, but it didn't go far enough in breaking down barriers or welcoming new employees into the extended Cimpress fold, according to Nick Parece, lead VoIP engineer for Cimpress.

Already comfortable with high-end, room-based videoconferencing, Cimpress decided to push out video capabilities to all 4,800 employees as an everyday means of staying in touch.

The medium has become a preferred way of communicating throughout its employee ranks, Parece says, with Cimpress employees logging over 2,000 internal video calls daily. The firm replaced traditional IP phones in conference rooms with Cisco video systems while delivering video capabilities on employee desktops and mobile devices via Cisco's DX series for the desktop.

Now, rather than picking up the phone or shooting off a quick email, Cimpress employees have one communications device that lets them interact with co-workers down the hall or across the world through either audio or face-to-face video. The latter, says Parece, has quickly become the medium of choice across the enterprise. "Video is the engine that allows us to collaborate and innovate -- it's become an important part of how the company interacts," Parece says.

At the same time, Cimpress began experimenting with novel use cases, including hosting daily video "huddles" across multiple sites and bringing nearly 10 global locations together for a virtual brand launch party without a single employee stepping foot on a plane.

"We took a big global company, and without paying a dime for travel, we threw a big party, bringing together different cultures, different people and different time zones," says Parece.

Thanks to falling costs and rising quality of service, a growing number of companies like Cimpress are finally turning video into a standard tool for enterprise communication. Though widely touted for years, the technology previously had limited appeal -- mostly in global organizations able to foot the bill for expensive, room-based videoconferencing or telepresence systems.

The advent of professional-grade, user-friendly video products for the desktop, along with new SaaS-based video offerings, has been a game changer for small and midsized organizations, which had previously passed on the technology, experts say, due to budgetary constraints or because they lacked IT employees able to handle the complex systems.

"As videoconferencing platforms become optimized for self-service, it's bringing down the barriers related to the cost and difficulty of implementing the technology," says Nick Barber, an analyst with Forrester Research. "It's far easier to scale and deploy videoconferencing when you don't need to buy, install and manage extra hardware."

Communications for the YouTube generation

With millennials passing up texting for Snapchat and TV for streaming services like Hulu, video has become a pervasive part of everyday life. Even the boomer generation is now video-savvy, sharing their favorite YouTube memes and political clips on social media and enlisting tools like Skype to connect with family.

As video gains traction in people's personal lives, they come to expect a comparable experience in their work environment -- much like what happened with the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement for smartphones and tablets, experts say.

"Technology in the enterprise is very much influenced by consumer expectations," says Barber. "Outside of work, we're watching Netflix and having a great experience consuming and finding video content, or we're using FaceTime to connect person-to-person, and then we come into the enterprise and the technology doesn't often work as well."

While still not as turnkey as consumer-grade tools, enterprise videoconferencing technology has made strides, Barber says, citing two big breakthroughs: Interoperability standards that facilitate calls between diverse video systems, and desktop and mobile capabilities that untether users from having to physically camp out in a designated videoconference room.

According to a December 2015 survey by IDC of 1,200 U.S.-based decision makers responsible for communications services in their organizations, enterprise videoconferencing continues to gain momentum, with more than half of organizations surveyed currently deploying the technology and an additional one third planning to do so within two years. Based on the survey findings, the most popular drivers for enterprise videoconferencing use were to reduce travel expenses (57%), to increase productivity (48%), and to improve employee collaboration (43%).

Proponents say enterprise video delivers some important "soft" benefits as well: Helping to make executives more relatable, training employees in a faster and more effective fashion, facilitating team bonding over geographically dispersed teams, and helping to attract and retain millennials impatient with face-to-face meetings.

Travel expenses down, collaboration up

That's certainly the case at John Holland Group, a global engineering, contracting and service provider firm. High-end telepresence videoconferencing and desktop video chats alike have become the norm for project collaboration, for teams across the vast Australian continent and its six primary locations throughout the Asia-Pacific region, according to David Banger, the company's CIO (who has since left the firm to take another role focused solely on digital).

What took root as a medium for top-level executives to present quarterly updates to the rank and file has evolved into a mainstream communications vehicle that keeps employees at every level connected and engaged, while eliminating unproductive travel time, Banger says.

"Given that Sydney to Perth is a five-and-a-half-hour flight, people were losing half a day in travel," says Banger, adding that the capital investment in the initial high-end, room-based technology was recouped in a 12-to-18-month time period thanks to a reduction in travel expenses. The company also invested in a desktop software videoconferencing system (which Banger declined to identify), which now has up to 1,000 end points. "Videoconferencing helps us improve productivity and enables people to get on with their day," he says.

John Holland is using video in other creative ways. The IT group has created a series of "day in the life" videos to showcase its technology roadmap for the upcoming year rather than releasing multi-page documents that Banger says employees will never read. "If you think about a good IT strategy document, it's between 15 and 20 pages, and how often is someone going to take the time read that when they have so much other information to consume?" he asks. "These couple-of-minute videos inform people about what we're doing for the year, and it's been broadly acknowledged as a great way to engage."

Banger's group also captures video footage of company projects around the globe, which is shared throughout John Holland offices on large TV panels in the main lobbies, keeping both employees and partners apprised of work in progress, he explains. To share these and other video clips, Banger's group has created John Holland TV, an internal YouTube channel of sorts that is secured behind the company firewall and allows employees to upload and share video content covering training and safety tips and even showcasing their projects. The site is accessible on employees' mobile devices -- a necessity, Banger says, since many John Holland employees work from remote locations.

Baking video into the corporate culture

Now that video capabilities are available as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), the 20-store, New England grocery chain Roche Bros. is testing the waters, initially with a digital signage application that serves an electronic bulletin board in common areas for upcoming events like store openings or open enrollment for benefits, according to John Lauderback, the company's vice president of information technology.

Roche Bros. is currently evaluating various SaaS-based desktop videoconferencing services, a model best suited for organizations that are small and have limited IT resources, Lauderback says.

While the firm is just getting started, Lauderback envisions video eventually playing a much bigger role -- for instance, as a way for the company founder to give a monthly chat or to open it up to employees to do in-store training, like how to scale a fish. "The new technology makes it more accessible and affordable," Lauderback says. "There's lots of things we'll be able to do -- we just need to use our imagination and figure out what's effective and what's not."

Experts and early adopters say that approach is a good one. To succeed with enterprise video, companies have to make it easy and available to all so the technology becomes baked into the corporate culture. It is also critical for tech leaders to understand their user base and to pilot video projects that will have a big impact on how employees want to work and collaborate, notes John Holland's Banger, who envisions a radically different work style for many employees five years out.

"Their experience is going to be predominantly consuming content on a device and not through a lot of paper," he says. "They want to be able to quickly connect with people through social media and video, and we have to prepare the organization for that."

Computerworld's IT Salary Survey 2017 results
Shop Tech Products at Amazon