Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Saturday, December 13, 2003

The Future Of Web Conferencing: Good Interviews Stuart Henshall

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Stuart Henshall is an expert in the use of new media technologies in the workplace. His current obsessions are social networking tools, social software, blogging, wikis, and the revolution taking place around voice communications.


I have only recently made the acquaintance with Stuart thanks to a truly creative and well thought out idea he had built around the availability of Skype as an immediate and easy-to-use-mean to interact with other, like-minded people.

Sprung by curiosity I contacted him and found him to be a truly fascinating character. Stuart has strong point of views and truly rides ahead of the majority of normal users, at least when it comes to collaboration, interaction, publishing.

As he says himself, he is an "early adopter"; someone that tries out early the emerging tools while immersing himself in heavy and continued use of those tools already on the cutting edge.

Nonetheless it idiosyncratic corners, to me Stuart has been a true master artist. Master because he appears to have used extensively what he talks about, and artist because he has opened for me new ways to look at how I do things with new technologies and at how this can truly affect and improve the results that I want to achieve.

In many ways Stuart is much ahead of me in seeing trends and opportunities. He does bring many of his unique ideas and points of view in this rich exchange he so kindly offered to respond to.

He like me believes that "revolutionary changes are happening and how we share knowledge is a key part." As much as I share his thoughts on many points I can't avoid encouraging Stuart to be the poet who also is able to popularize concepts and ideas that otherwise would remain so alien to many of us:

"...The current economic transition affects the lives of our children, our civil liberties, our social structures...Change often comes when least expected from ideas and people outside the loop on the edge of chaos."

As Stuart's blog so well illustrates his curiosity for what's new, the "what ifs?", and the differences that may make a real difference, I have engaged him with questions that would have allowed the revelation of some of the patterns and trends that only those who eat and breathe digital collaboration every day can sense and paint back for us so easily.

As much as he enjoyed going through this process of questioning, I got more than a kick out of some of his brilliant conclusions, as well as the need to re-read several times some of his futuristic passages, to see whether I had set my time zone to the wrong century or if he was really talking in English... but you will judge for yourself:

Robin Good: Stuart, what is going to happen as people become able to talk, see and collaborate online effortlessly and at very low-cost?

Stuart Henshall: Virtual organizations, virtual teams and virtual actions become more familiar as long as the supporting programs don't become more complex.

My most fascinating recent experience was using a small piece of software that enabled everyone to see the multiple conferences going on in the office. Let's call the peripheral vision on the desktop. That vision is important if you work alone or are in a small office.

The other dimension is that conference calling will really go global.

Robin Good: What are the key trends that you have been spotting in the web conferencing industry in the last 12 months?

Stuart Henshall: I'm not a trend spotter for the conference industry. However a collection of new products suggests that there is a cost revolution in the making.

To date my perspective of Web conferencing is best characterised by "WebEx". I'd admit I find these clunky.

There's always a parallel phone call running with the data that is on the screen. So the environment is overly structured from the beginning.

Book the call. Have the presentation, no or limited back chat etc. Plus it is simply expensive. Yep it is cheaper than flying people around and saves time.

I see more control coming to the desktop to enable more spontaneity, and rapid answers.

I personally believe that "voice centric" IM is coming (eg Skype +) and will be adapted to conference calls. Behaviour will change dramatically when "organizing" no longer "pre-empts" need action now. Automated synching of presence is rocketing towards us.

I've also seen some products that suggest new "virtual conferencing" support amongst real physical conferences. These could really leverage social aspects, Spoke, ZeroDegrees etc. type spontaneous meetups.

These mini-conferences may just be the place we see a real explosion. Some of these require no network at all... just Wi-Fi cards and a group of people in the same place. Thus the old idea of getting business cards may just be supplanted by "networking" new introductions and connections more efficiently.

Then there are some new collaborative ways of using information that may revolutionize the moments in which we collaborate.

Robin Good: Which specific tools that have emerged in the last 1-2 years has impressed you the most?

Stuart Henshall: Skype is the only one that has significantly impacted on how I view IM type applications.

Interestingly it's Peer-to-Peer orientation is similar to Groove's which would have been on my list a few years ago.

I'm not sure that it is tools in the classic sense that is impacting.

Coming out of tech conferences have been a growing use of Wi-Fi and blogging tools. Blogging a conference provides the attendee with more value, it also works for the organizers - free press and exposure... more chat and analysis etc. Major conference organizers haven't caught on this yet. I'd add that going to a conference now without Wi-Fi is like the stone age.

I really liked the Communispace concept of a 24/7 focus group at your fingertips. That appeals as it brings the outside in, provides a direct connection and resource for learning.

Robin Good: How will real-time collaboration tools look in one year from now? And in three?

Stuart Henshall: Let's hope that the emerging VoIP solutions cure the latency. I've found plenty of claims that it all works fine... broadband in the US, but take it global and it simply doesn't fair as well.

There is a real opportunity for new "indirect" collaboration tools to emerge. These are data-based solutions that identify better collaboration opportunities or make connections more transparent.

Robin Good: What is the area of online collaboration where the industry has not been making enough progress?

Stuart Henshall: Difficult for me to define. I'm not sure of the definition or where the industry direction is headed. As a Scenario Practitioner they should look down the cellar stairs. Software is going P2P, Voice call costs are trending to zero.

Concurrently what is the big idea? What is next generation conferencing?

Guess it is clear that "virtual working" is becoming more commonplace. As we... consumers or individual collaborators get more data invisibly accruing at our fingertips I'm guessing that sharing it more effectively may lead to connections that can be leveraged in real time.

Example... Spoke became voice activated. The person introducing the two people does it by voice rather than opening an e-mail line (requires IM/Voice association). When the more detailed private information is then connected there may be opportunities to bring others into the conversation immediately. For example the conversation moves from collaboration to include a 'research project. At the subject is broadened someone else can be brought in - in real-time or committed for a future time.

Robin Good: If you were to define your own perfect Web conferencing tool what would it be like? And how much would it cost?

Stuart Henshall: The core part of a conferencing tool would enable a small group up to 5-7 to meet quickly and easily. It would also enable sound that helps with placement and position. Connected to a cam... the cam's wouldn't be linear but in a circle. I'm then really in a room. In the trad conference call I can get someone's name and the next person sounds like they are coming from the same location.

It must work seamlessly, simply. First time users must be able to get up and working in minutes, really seconds.

Some of these new programs that are combining IM's and managing presence are scary. They take over the system or appear to. It takes too much time to work out whether my "circles" are being breached in some way.

Generally the pricing structures for these products have been poorly set. They don't encourage light ongoing usage and stifle personal trial and experience building. If I use a program for the first time it should be free. If I only use it 12 times a year it should probably be free. I invested time in understanding it and in the follow-on period I may just use it with others.

The heavy user of course pays. Could be in a few days if they use it many times they get to the billing point very quickly. That's a more viral pricing structure.

Robin Good: Stuart, you work a lot with traditional corporations; how are these enterprises changing with the growing adoption of these new collaboration tools?

Stuart Henshall: I regard myself as a relatively early adopter. The traditional organizations aren't in this zone. The innovation is much more likely to come form the SME and individual.

It takes strong managers to bring in these programs. Most don't have the time to invest in developing their understanding. So far there is little "proof" that these advanced knowledge practices really work.

Ultimately it is not about the tool it is about the culture and the people.
When they see others working smarter, easier and having more fun then they will do it too.

For the most part online collaboration is less satisfying than a two-day workshop.

Robin Good: What do you think is the greatest obstacle to standardization and interoperability of these collaboration tools?

Stuart Henshall: Our own perspectives!

Robin Good: For people meeting and collaborating online is security going to be a critical issue in the near future?

Stuart Henshall: I'd have thought it already was / is. Groove seems to have been one of the first to address this. By contrast... tools that are combining with wiki's in both public and private forms may have a different impact. The culture around wiki's is different.

Robin Good: Who is bound to benefit the most from having real-time collaboration tools available to anyone?

Stuart Henshall: Should someone benefit more than another?

There is a type of thinking around collaboration that has received little attention. Let me provide an example.

You and I both have Web pages that get multiple hits in a day. We don't know the context of the search however if those pages are "tight" then they may well be providing similar information. Potentially we could provide them with a collaboration moment. It could be provided by linking Google Search with a virtual meetup timed to a presence call when a number is achieved.... Eg 5-7 people. Becomes an automatic knowledge café. "Moments" are sets of events that potentially enable collaboration or solutions. This same example could be put to practice for certain terms in a large organisation.

There were recent posts on accidental communities and another on audio file sharing. There is a collection of emerging "learning tools" that people create by indirect collaboration. E.g.: my music playing creates smarter purchases for others. My Google searching can link me to other people in the organization that search for things like me. Some nice touchgraph examples are emerging.

Robin Good: In your opinion, what are the factors that discourage people the most in adopting and utilizing these tools on a daily basis?

Stuart Henshall: For the majority we still have to get them off e-mail. Anything that takes them away from shuffling the e-mail is something new.

Leaving a presence indicator on --- e.g.: IM is terrifying to some and takes some time to get used to. Concurrently with "exposure" there is little profile control. If one wants to run multiple profiles they may or may not be logged on to all at once.

Robin Good: Many elearning solutions do not use videoconferencing. Some people say because video is not really necessary. Is it true? When and why is video really necessary?

Stuart Henshall: There's a huge jump from text to voice. Add even a picture of the person in and huge additional value is created. Video has a place. It also give us a degree of realism and intensity that one can not hear from voice alone. It is good to see someone smile. It also keeps the energy levels up.

The primary problem seems to be time lag and bandwidth. We are closer but not there yet.

Separately, there is a period of time to get used to it. A camera running is not something people are used to seeing. The first impact reminds one of sitting in front of a mirror. Not something we consciously do.

Robin Good: What do you think is the most misunderstood concept about online collaboration and how it should be like? (That one thing that if done differently would radically change the way think of Web conferencing or real-time collaboration online.)

Stuart Henshall: The move from conferences to collaboration helps... More real-time participation helps. I've had a fun session on metalayer where a swarm appear for an hour and works collectively on content. It's stimulating. It also takes some learning. It's a little like a silent whiteboard.

I find threaded discussions very time consuming. Discussion can often move to a very detailed level. Then there is a volume to wade through. This isn't a problem in blogs particularly where a community has unofficially formed around a topic or set of topics. It is easy to wade in and out and a get quickly back up to date via a newsreader. The time frames come and go. The relationships are nurtured and there is more spontaneity for new ones. Blogs are looser, than forums and yet they may provide better learning tools. For they are less structured and go where one's interests go.

Robin Good: Do you think of online meeting spaces as actual buildings, conference centers, classrooms? Do you think carrying over the analogy of physical spaces and their constraints is a good idea?

Stuart Henshall: There are probably good arguments for them good and bad. However as technology evolves I think the rationale becomes less and less clear.

Robin Good: You have been mentioning to me about unique ways in which you have made your personal interaction with online collaboration tools more effective. Do you want to share something about what you have discovered?

Stuart Henshall: I think you are referring to my use of two screens. Most recent laptops running XP can run an extended screen. So in my office they run side by side. I've been watching what goes where.

I'd add that my second screen is the remnants of a very old PC, so as people upgrade they should just move to this as a practice. Can build the argument at another time....

Simply find that it clearly starts to separate my screens into a "communicator" and my work screen. The Communicator trades between Outlook + IM's and my RSS newsreader. It also aids cutting and pasting... for certain document generation. It's really a dashboard for me... who's on line, what is being updated etc.

As I've mentioned to you. I believe there is a way to use the second screen as a method to introduce advanced knowledge practices. By consolidating components like RSS - newsreaders and IM there you can add them to a person's workspace as a bonus without cluttering their current screen. It also makes a statement to others about the change in work practices.

Robin Good: Why companies having 100,000 or 10,000,000 collaboration tools out in the market (instant messengers) have not been able to capitalize on their reach, while comparatively small firms in the enterprise market have been able to repeatedly scout the best margins in the industry?

Stuart Henshall: I'd like more data on the "margins" in the business. When I think about the emerging MSN's AIM's etc of the world we are still not quite ready for it. Potentially these are all nascent programs for a new communications paradigm. They provide functionality... from file exchanges to telephone substitutes. Today the old telephone is beginning to look pretty dumb in comparison.

The IM tools have yet to really catch on in business. The extended features fail or deliver low levels of quality. There are too many interconnect problems. The critical problem here is that learning and innovation is concentrated in CoP's and at creative friction points. Eg between supplier and co, customer and co. Few co's are effectively managing these exchanges on a mass scale. For the most part these tools are also egalitarian.

They don't support hierarchies; they support networks and are more reflective of how people work.

We are at a crux point where communications transport "tips" --- the combination of VoIP, IM and wireless, will move us away from phone and e-mail.

Both phone and e-mail are one-to-one oriented. The VoIP, IM, Wireless world is Many-to-many oriented. More importantly the combination of voice and text when combined or integrated means we can truly begin an age where virtual "communication" is about a broader range of senses compressed into real-time. That will enhance both learning and reduce misunderstandings.

Robin Good: Who do you think is driving this market? Enterprise solutions or cutting-edge new small solution providers?

Stuart Henshall: Advanced knowledge solutions are emerging at very low cost.

The value is moving from a calculation at the corporate level to one at the individual level.

Where mega-bucks were justified personal productivity, combined with grossed up employee costs means that IT increasingly will be assigned to the individual.

That's a different sale. "Full Augmented Network" costing practices will be required. The collaboration software that provides the "sauce" to create the intangibles will win.

Stuart Henshall is a marketing strategist, futurist and facilitator who mixes stretch with leadership. His blog the Unbound Spiral, is influencing and researching developments in the emerging social software arena. As an active blogger, he is working with clients to adapt and merge these new "knowledge tools" with "strategic" organizational development workshops and programs.

A trans-national born in England and who grew up in California, Stuart has been a leading scenario practitioner with GBN Global Business Network where he ran programs which included future studies on food, biotechnology, communications and consumer power. Stuart main effort is working to combine the use of scenarios, visioning and emerging software tools to help branded communities augment their collective intelligence.

Stuart has been an active member in the Knowledge Management environment and some his papers include "Trust in Networks," "The COMsumer Manifesto" and a short series on emerging P2P (peer to peer) environment. More recently "blogging" captures his thoughts.

Stuart has a from the University of Auckland and is a Chartered Accountant CA. He lives with his family in San Francisco, California.

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posted by Robin Good on Saturday, December 13 2003, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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