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Meet Me in Cyberspace

E-meeting systems have evolved into more than ways to save time and money on travel. We see how three companies are finding that they can track and shape projects as they produce more-focused meetings.

By Linda Rosencrance
February 21, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Virtual meetings conducted over the Internet were once viewed as little more than a clumsy stopgap when time or the company travel budget made in-person meetings impossible. But improved technology that streamlines workflow, facilitates knowledge management and allows corporations to do more in less time and at a lower cost has transformed e-meetings into one of the best choices for many kinds of group communication, according to users.
Features of e-meeting software can include integrated audio- and video-conferencing, application sharing with markup capabilities, real-time feedback, whiteboards, instant surveys and text chat. In addition, some technologies automatically record meetings for editing and playback and store recordings and materials such as agendas, minutes and presentations for easy retrieval.
"We're just now seeing the point where e-meetings are getting on the mainstream radar - where it has become the norm for facilitating conversations or conferencing, instead of the exception," says Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at Burton Group in Midvale, Utah.
And as the software and interfaces have become more sophisticated, it has become easier for people to start using tools effectively, O'Kelly says.
But there are some things a company should look out for when moving to virtual meetings, says Eli Mina, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based management consultant. Virtual meetings work better in small groups, and it's more difficult to build trust and team cohesion when people can't see or hear one another, he says. E-meetings also reduce flexibility, making some interactive discussion techniques, like breaking into smaller groups, almost impossible.
To evaluate how the benefits and disadvantages of virtual meetings stack up in real business situations, Computerworld took a look at how three companies are using virtual meeting software.
Wyndham International: Beyond Training
Dallas-based Wyndham International Inc. initially turned to Centra Software Inc.'s real-time online collaboration tool to facilitate employee training in its new property management system. The hotel chain soon decided it could save time and money using Centra's e-meeting application as well.
Since Wyndham started using Lexington, Mass.-based Centra's software four years ago, it has saved more than $1 million in travel-related and telecommunications expenses, says Mark Eggers, manager of online learning at the company.
"We use it for weekly and monthly conference calls, and because it's voice over IP, we save about $10,000 to $15,000 a month on our telephone bill," Eggers says.
Centra's software enables application sharing, and it displays graphics, PowerPoint slides and spreadsheets. "We can show the information to people rather than just talking about it on the phone," says Eggers.
Centra's e-meeting tool also brings back some of the etiquette to the process because people have

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