Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The Future Of Web Conferencing: Good Interviews Gillian Kerr

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I am very pleased to have with me this time someone that is involved with Web conferencing and online collaboration from a distinctly human fashion, leveraging the power of new communication technologies to facilitate development and non-profit organizations in making the best and most effective use of such tools.


With a strong academic and research background Dr Gillian Kerr, contributes a number of interesting and highly disruptive considerations about where we should be looking to improve the degree of acceptance that these technologies can achieve today.

According to Dr Kerr is through better and deeper understanding of the social interaction, the personal human attitudes and the cultural milieu of users that companies developing online collaboration technologies can achieve significantly more effective results in their marketing strategies.

I agree very much with this point and I see no point in pushing these collaboration technologies further without first realizing the huge delay these companies have on investing seriously in interaction and user interface design, which rests solidly at the core of any effective collaboration solution to be delivered through a mediating technology.

Overall Gillian Kerr bring to this interview a non-technological look at what is happening in the world of web conferencing and offers an independent fresh view on our missed challenges and yet to be resolved explorations into the future of effective and humanly-tuned Web conferencing and online collaboration.

Robin Good: Dr. Kerr, what got you so interested and involved in the world of Web conferencing and online collaboration?

Gillian Kerr: For several years I worked with people with sensory disabilities, particularly deaf and hard of hearing adults, as a rehabilitation psychologist.

I began using email in the early 1980s so that I could communicate with my deaf colleagues. At that point, I realized that email was going to change the world, and became hooked on various communication technologies. It was a wonderful way of getting into technology, because I was used to thinking about how technical aids could mediate between people with disabilities and various aspects of social life including employment and community engagement.

I'm still interested in how technology can create either bridges or additional barriers to people with disabilities, depending how it is designed. And I'm also interested in how disabilities can teach us how technology can emulate other forms of communication. For example, teleconferences provide a way for blind people to participate fully in group meetings - and by thinking about how blind people engage in a regular face to face meeting, you can figure out how to create a teleconference that works better for sighted people.

I'd say that Web conferencing and online collaboration is an extension or a variation of teleconferencing, and I began using it several years ago with deaf people who couldn't use the telephone.

Robin Good: How relevant are online-collaboration technologies for non-profits, NGOs and grassroots organizations?

Gillian Kerr: Very. They can't afford the travel costs, or even the travel time, to get together unless they are located right next to each other. And that's a real barrier to collaboration. We need to figure out how to make community action more efficient, and how to decrease administration costs by enabling people to work together effectively without sitting in the same office space.

Robin Good: How can these organizations consider having some true real-time collaboration tools when the costs for WebEx or Microsoft Live Meeting are so prohibitive? Are these tools just reserved for top management interaction inside these humanitarian orgs?

Gillian Kerr: I wish. These tools aren't reserved for top management yet, because in most cases, top management hasn't thought of using them.

I'm finding it very difficult to encourage nonprofits to use Web conferencing tools; they are still hard to use and often unreliable unless you choose the most expensive ones.

I'm looking forward to seeing what Microsoft does with Live Meeting, because Microsoft tends to transform market segments once it decides to enter them seriously. That may open up the market for cheaper alternatives once people are more comfortable with the whole concept.

In the short term, there are several inexpensive alternatives, including Glance, which I'm using these days. Your list of SOHO Web conferencing tools is the best way for people to review the options (and I'm not just being nice).

But I would also include teleconferencing under real-time distance collaboration tools. Teleconferences are still under-used, and with VOIP (voice over IP) technologies, long distance multi-point calls will get cheaper and cheaper. Good quality teleconferences give a great feel of personal connection, and my own team uses them all the time.

As I may have told you, my business partner, Lori Powers, lives in the United States and she and I have never met in three years of working together. Our consultants, who all work out of home offices, use a combination of teleconferences, instant messaging, email, an intranet and occasionally Web conferencing, and we're able to manage very complex projects with almost no face-to-face meetings.

Robin Good: What do you see as the greatest strength these technologies provide to organizations in non-profit sectors?

Gillian Kerr: Reduction of travel time, and the opportunity to include people outside a small urban area. Canada is a huge country - larger than the United States, but with a tenth of the population - and we need better ways of handling distance collaboration.

As the tools get better, I'm also hoping to see more effective collaboration (not just more efficient).

Robin Good: How do you see online collaboration tools changing and evolving? What trends do you see?

Gillian Kerr: The most important aspect is going to be the development of human processes that enable organizations to use them.

We need to understand what makes face-to-face meetings so important in developing trust and productive working relationships. It is not impossible to go without face-to-face meetings, as we've shown in my own virtual company, but it's difficult. Why is it so hard?

How can we emulate those age-old human processes using distance collaboration technologies? It's a highly culture-bound area.

Americans do it differently from Japanese, and Germans differently from Canadians. We have to create processes for the online world, and it's going to take a while. That's a field of research that fascinates us, and we hope to work with a group at the University of Michigan to investigate it further (the Science of Collaboratories project).

Robin Good: If you could now pickup the best of anyone collaboration technology and mix it up into a new ideal conferencing tool of your creation what existing components would you bring together and why?

Gillian Kerr: Good question!

  • I'd make it platform independent, not restricted to Windows and Internet Explorer, and I'd design it so that participants wouldn't need to download anything. More and more organizations are forbidding new programs, and it's a real drag when some participants can't join a meeting because their computer can't download the plug-in.

  • It wouldn't be affected by firewalls but would offer good security for private meetings.

  • I'd make it really, really easy to use, and completely reliable, with automatic roll-overs to backup servers if there were communications problems.

  • It would be integrated with full duplex audio to eliminate long distance charges, and participants could phone in if they didn't have a computer.

  • It would offer a variety of functions that could be selected by participants based on their needs, including full application sharing, whiteboarding, web cams, and showing simple web slides for people on a slow Internet connection.

  • And it would be integrated with a Web site or extranet, so that conferences could be recorded and webcasted for others to watch/listen to, and integrated with instant messaging and people's email client so that conferences could be initiated instantly.
  • Actually, come to think of it, if you look at Microsoft's three-year plans for LiveMeeting and the rest of the Office suite, you'd probably get a list that would be better than anything I could come up with.

    Robin Good: What are the features and facilities you miss the most in the tools you utilize today?

    Gillian Kerr: Ease of use and reliability and cost-effectiveness.

    Robin Good: What are three specific collaboration tools that you would recommend to others?

    Gillian Kerr: I really like Groove as a meeting tool, but it's got three important limitations - it's for Windows PCs only, it doesn't offer full application sharing, and it takes a big whack of processing power. I'm going to keep an eye on it over the next couple of years.

    Windows SharePoint Services by Microsoft is a beautiful technology that my team is experimenting with; it's cheap enough for nonprofits, and very powerful. It offers potential for collaboration that I haven't fully explored yet.

    And as I mentioned earlier, I like Glance for ease of use. It sits in my taskbar, and to show someone my screen I just double-click the icon and tell them the URL and a 4-digit code. No plug-ins for them, and it's instant.

    Robin Good: What do you think is the greatest misconception organizations you work for have in respect to Web conferencing and online collaboration?

    Gillian Kerr: The biggest misconception is that face-to-face meetings are necessary and that communication technologies are a poor second-best choice. Drives me nuts. I hate travelling an hour just to have an unproductive one hour meeting. The problem is that people don't know how to manage good telecons or Web conferences, and they are reluctant to put in the time to learn.

    Robin Good: What are the greatest benefits you have seen your customers gain after their successful adoption of online collaboration technologies?

    Gillian Kerr: Here I'd have to point to my experience with teleconferences. After people have used them for a while, they begin taking them for granted and complaining that others don't use them. It's the same thing that happened with fax machines and then email.

    We need a critical mass before the technology changes the way people work together. I haven't seen it happen yet with Web conferences, except for a few small groups of technology enthusiasts.

    Robin Good: How does the future of Webex, Centra, Live Meeting and other big enterprise players look to you?

    Gillian Kerr: Good luck to them. I think we're going to need some heavyweights to develop the market and the infrastructure. The cheaper options can follow in their footsteps.

    Robin Good: What are going to be the major obstacles that these companies are going to meet?

    Gillian Kerr: The reluctance of people to change the way they work together. It's a hard sell, and we need to figure out how to handle the social challenges more than the technological challenges.

    Robin Good: What do you think would be the ideal business model of the future when it comes to real-time collaboration? And which one do you think will prevail?

    Gillian Kerr: The ideal business model will be to have them used as utilities like heat, light, telephones and cars. They should be so common and so easy to use that we won't even think about them. Look what's happened to mobile phones in the last 5 years! Mobile phones enable people to move around and still be accessible, and we now take it for granted.

    Robin Good: Where do you stand in respect to Microsoft DRM strategy, TCPA/Palladium and their restrictions on interoperability of MSN with other instant messengers and collaboration tools?

    Gillian Kerr: The barriers to instant messaging interoperability will be temporary. I remember struggling with proprietary email systems in the 1980s, before the Internet became the common standard. Well before that, the challenge was common standards for telephone and telegraph systems. This IM
    situation won't last, though it will be frustrating for the next little while. There's tremendous pressure towards interoperability in communication systems, and vendors won't be able to resist it for long.

    Digital rights management and privacy is a bigger concern, and I can see both sides of the issue. I work in the human services, where privacy is a fundamental value, but in many cases, security is not being taken seriously enough. For example, confidential client information is frequently emailed from one professional to another with no understanding of the security risks.

    Simple encryption tools to protect data are essential, but they definitely reduce access to information flow in ways that can be negative.

    Dr. Kerr obtained her Ph.D. at York University in 1983, where she also took computer science.

    She has been involved in electronic networks for over 15 years, initially through her online collaboration with deaf colleagues across North America, and more recently through development of organizational systems that use information and new media communication tools more effectively. Dr. Kerr is a clinical psychologist, a former Associate in Strategic Philanthropy at Manifest Communications (a Canadian social marketing firm), and a published writer in several non-profit journals.

    For more information about Dr. Gillian Kerr background and approach, see her personal Web site.

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    posted by Robin Good on Tuesday, October 28 2003, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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