A face-to-face meeting is generally the most creative, collaborative and productive type of meeting that we can experience.  Having the ability to see someone’s expression, notice their body language, and hear the mildest voice inflection heightens the likelihood of participation, enthusiasm, and understanding.  A face-to-face meeting also offers easy access to collaboration mediums, whether it is on a notepad, flip-chart or whiteboard. There is only one problem: meeting face-to-face may not be an option and, when it is, it can be expensive.

Over the years, businesses, for many reasons, have become decentralized.  It may be a result of growth and expansion into multiple offices and/or locations.  Or, perhaps, it is a move towards allowing staff, for a variety of reasons, to work from home.  Whatever the reason, this change in where we work has impacted how we collaborate.  When a face-to-face meeting is not an option, how do we work together, when we are not together?

Traveling to a meeting is not the ideal solution, and may not even be practical given the distances and/or travel time involved.  Even just a quick drive down the street, once a week or once a month, begins to get costly, both in terms of dollars and productivity.  Is it any wonder that there was such excitement surrounding the introduction of videoconferencing?  After all, being able to meet over video appeared to have all of the benefits of meeting in person without the costs.  Adding video to a phone call seemed like the Holy Grail solution for distance communication.  But, it wasn’t.

There is another problem; something is missing.  Intuitively it makes sense. If meeting in person is the best practice, surely meeting face-to-face over video would be the next best thing.  And it is, if the meeting format only requires a conversation between relatively small groups; employment interviews and depositions are perfect examples of videoconferencing’s sweet spot.  It excels at allowing people to have that personal interaction and connection.

But, what if the meeting format requires content collaboration?  This is where videoconferencing has come up short.  Commonly referred to as “talking heads”, meeting over video allows you to see meeting participants, but does not permit true collaboration ~ working on the same document at the same time, brainstorming on the same notepad or whiteboard at the same time and having one set of joint notes as a result.

Even with data sharing options enabled, videoconferencing is still a “Show-and-Tell” meeting; more akin to presentation than collaboration.  This is because showing does not have the same impact as sharing.  Digital meeting technologies like WebEx and GoToMeeting have the same limitations.  You can show your images, but you cannot share the same workspace.

While, leading videoconference manufacturers are developing solutions that will close the gap between the “Talking Heads Show and Tell” video meeting and true collaboration,  there are meeting tools available on the market now that solves this collaboration limitation.

To my knowledge, the most developed version of data collaboration is FreeStorm ® from SMART Technologies.  This solution permits the user to write in the same virtual workspace, markup a document and write on the same virtual whiteboard as if they were participating in a face-to-face meeting.  And, it’s easy.  With a simple push of a button, participants can share their own screen(s) into the virtual workspace for everyone to see and collaborate on.  And, since everything is electronic, the meeting notes can be easily saved and distributed.

Most recently, while attending Infocomm 2012, I saw an interesting demonstration from a company named DisplayNote Technologies with a product by the same name.  DisplayNote ® is not shipping yet, but it looks promising and is a good indicator of where collaboration solutions are headed.

With the rapid advancements in technologies, meetings and collaborations are being done just as effectively in the virtual workspaces as in the traditional face-to-face meetings.  The rules are changing: workspaces are more flexible and people can work anywhere, anytime.

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