Few can envy the IT team tasked with organizing a video conference call with virtual teams in several locations when each member may use a different device or be in a different IT environment. The call may be crucial, with partners, potential investors and board members all attending. You are expected to ensure an uninterrupted call, with all callers having clear audio and voice communication as well as access to relevant presentation documents.
Can you guarantee that the call will take place without a drop in or loss of service quality?
Vaclav Vincalek, president of Pacific Coast Information Systems Ltd., a Vancouver-based provider of strategic IT consulting services, says that there is nothing you can do, adding that "You are doomed and it will be pure luck if the whole thing works."
It is true that many aspects of the video conferencing process are definitely outside IT's control. Sure, they can control all onsite aspects but they cannot control broadband or power outage. They cannot monitor the IT environments of third parties or boost the signal quality of an attendee currently scaling the upper slopes of Mount Everest or in a location where 3G or 4G coverage is sporadic or unavailable.
Therefore, let's roll the dice and see what IT can do to maximize their chances of success. It is worth noting that anyone who blames IT when a conference call is interrupted should seek medical attention immediately, given that most of us cannot survive with a squashed apricot providing higher brain functions.
IT hates to rely on third-party services but unfortunately it must. However, IT cannot simply wait for the time of the call and cross their fingers.
"The only way to do it is set it up and test it in advance," said Vincalek. Smaller companies may not have access to the technology necessary (and consumer-level VoIP services will not cut it).
"Ideally, you go to companies like Cisco, with conference rooms in every major city. They love to demo their technology and you can use it as a proof of concept," advised Vincalek.
"If this is not an option, ask the call participants about their preferred software. You (an IT guy) know that you can make anything work. It is much easier to make it happen at your end than troubleshoot somebody else's computer," said Vincalek.
Of course, it is best that all callers are familiar with and have tested the same software. It is even better if all of them join the call from an office, with support from their IT teams, especially if investors are involved.
"Investors are not known for their ability to make their webcam work correctly but have other skills. The same goes for board members. They advise on management and analytics and not on audio codec selection or the merits of H.264," quipped Vincalek.
Some callers may work from home and, as a result, the network quality of service may vary. At the time of writing, there is no single service that will work for all virtual teams and from every location. Audio and video problems can interrupt a call and there is nothing IT can do about it, although they can identify the cause by monitoring the network.
Except, that is, have a plan B and plan C ready to go if the worst happens.
For example, Vincalek recommends that IT gathers a list of all participants and sets up a conference bridge with a reliable provider.
"It might also be a good idea to have voice over conference bridge and the video over video conference. If video fails, you still have voice," said Vincalek.
When internet quality cannot be relied on (not just onsite but in caller locations) and with varying audio and video quality, multiple configurations and devices, it is certainly difficult at times to ensure quality video conferencing.
Luckily, we can maximize what we can control. Set up all the required hardware and test in advance of the call. This includes webcams, routers (set to prioritize audio and video traffic) and video conferencing software (to make sure it is compatible with all devices). In addition, ensure that all participants use wired connections if possible. The use of a headset with microphone will eliminate many audio issues such as echoes and fade-outs. Video lag and other issues are typically related to bandwidth so make sure that the network is not configured to perform scheduled updates or is struggling to deal with other employees' video streaming activities.
Finally, you cannot rely on a single conference-call solution. Have a few backup options just in case. By checking and rechecking voice and audio performance in advance of that all-important call, you can maximize your chances of a successful, problem-free call. Sacrificing a goat or offering up a prayer might aid your chances as well but luck will play its part.