Perhaps this sounds familiar: You dial into a conference call, type in a PIN and listen to bad elevator music or sit in uncomfortable silence until all participants join. Maybe one of the participants has the wrong PIN, so there’s a flurry of e-mail and text messages to get that person on the line. Then there’s a round of confusing introductions, since you can’t actually see anyone.
Sometimes you have no idea who’s talking (was that Frank or Joe?), someone cuts out, someone has to dial back in, there’s a dog barking in the background, or you’re straining desperately to hear what’s going on since the sound is crackly or echoing. It can best be summed up in this video (be warned, don’t drink coffee while you’re watching this, since it may cause uncontrollable laughter):
While the human race has made incredible advancements in science, medicine and technology, we still find it hard to get more than two people together on a conference line. Indeed, over the years I’ve participated in many a conference call where we spent more time trying to troubleshoot technical issues with the call than focusing on the agenda.
So does this mean the death of the conference call?
In a recent podcast on National Public Radio in the U.S., Fresh Air tech contributor Alexis Madrigal says the problem with conference calls is that they attempt to connect various telecom networks that have been built on top of the legacy phone network. “We’re all trying to hack this nearly century-old system of communication to fit the needs of a world that wants everything to act like the Internet,” he said.
Of course, landlines work just fine (and yes, I still have one). But people are also dialing in to conference calls from cellular networks and over IP. Some are calling from home (hence, the barking dog), some from a vehicle, coffee shop or airport, and some from an office boardroom with a bunch of other people.
The problem isn’t the conference call itself. It’s that the conference call needs to fundamentally change to be more effective.
And one way is through technology that already exists. Unified communications (UC) can bring together users calling from landlines, mobile devices and computers, providing the ability to participate in multimedia conferences — which can include video and document sharing. They can also make it easier to join conferences (such as eliminating PINs) and manage them.
One of the biggest issues with traditional conference calls, Madrigal points out, is that the phone system isn’t able to easily pass on your identity.
Despite this, audio conferences still account for 65 per cent of all conferencing, according to Boston-based Wainhouse Research. Why? Audio conferences are convenient and appeal to users who aren’t comfortable with video.
On the other hand, video allows you to easily identify who’s speaking and is more engaging. You’re far less likely to be watching funny cat videos on YouTube during a multimedia conference than a traditional audio one.
Sure, there are a lot of free tools on the Internet that work just fine if you’re conference-calling mom and dad, but most don’t provide a consistent high-quality experience for corporate meetings.
Enterprise UC tools are designed to provide that high-quality experience — and they’re also far more secure than what you’ll find for free on the Internet.
There’s no need for conference calls to die. After all, they’re popular for a reason: They allow teams to connect and collaborate across locations, distances and time zones. We just need them to work better.
Of course, technology won’t stop a dog from barking in the background, so along with technology comes user training (and perhaps setting some ground rules). But the technology exists to make conferencing far more effective, and can turn it from a joke into a true productivity enhancer.
photo credit: nateOne via photopin cc