Ready, Set, Collaborate

Ensure an effective technology system for enterprise collaboration by establishing a “road map” with four key stages.

By Rick Szcodronski
From the June 2017 Issue

Your big meeting is about to start and no one can get the conferencing system to work, leading to a time setback and lost productivity. Sound familiar? We’re all cramming so much into our schedules these days that there’s never been more of a need for efficient enterprise collaboration. You need a robust conferencing system, with any number of features from web, video, and audio-based conferencing to screen sharing and wireless presentations. Before making any purchases, though, facility executives have a few things to consider. Namely, you need to define the right enterprise collaboration tools for your needs and spaces.

conferencing system

First, determine your organization’s needs based on location. Are your offices spread across the country or the globe? Is a cross border system necessary? Are you struggling to find the right solution for a large conference room, four person huddle room, or employees’ personal workstations? Collaboration solutions—and personal collaboration solutions where needed—should be easily deployable to enable interoffice communication in a flash.

Once you know which spaces and locations you’re outfitting, you can build your conferencing system from the ground up, with the following road map.

Map Point 1: Take stock of the spaces you have, or want to have. When it comes to enterprise communication, spaces can be viewed in two ways: by functionality and by size.

When determining functionality, ask: Which capabilities are needed in each location? Options include screen sharing, video conferencing, web conferencing, digital white boarding, and more. For a conference room, for example, is audio/video conferencing sufficient, or do you also need to support web conferencing platforms? How important are local/in-room collaboration features such as screen sharing or a digital whiteboard?

When considering room size, know that larger rooms will require the deployment of different equipment. A rule of thumb: Rooms that hold 10 to 12 people can no longer effectively use software-based solutions, and instead will need a dedicated hardware-based solution that can handle multiple microphones and speakers with digital signal processors (DSPs) and amplifiers (more on this in Map Point 3).

Now, put these two together. Take the functionality desired and apply it to each size space. You may want the same functionality in all spaces, but may need to deploy different hardware solutions to achieve that.

Map Point 2: Put the numbers to it. Develop a preliminary design for each space based on the desired functionality that can be used to generate a high-level cost estimate. Present this as a budget to stakeholders. When the numbers are totaled, the price can often be surprising to stakeholders whose only frame of reference might be the cost of their home theater setup. Note: It’s important to understand the functional requirements that go into creating a detailed cost estimate, so informed decisions can be made to adjust the design.

Map Point 3: Redefine options and design detail. Start peeling back the onion to determine which features can be sacrificed and which are non-negotiable, based on the budget. Know that it’s not all or nothing. One way to reduce costs, while maintaining a similar functionality, is to consider equipment tiers. For example, there are two flavors of video conferencing equipment: hardware and software. Hardware, ideal for larger rooms because it offers enhanced performance, includes standalone speakers, microphones, and digital signaling processor. Software-based audiovisual (AV) equipment can work for smaller rooms, where a dedicated computer can be employed with a single camera, speakers, and microphone.

Another way to cut costs is to opt for a system with less functionality. If functionality is removed, it is important to consider ways to easily add it in the future without a complete overhaul of infrastructure. This could involve pre-installing adequately sized back boxes behind displays and conduits to conference tables or other future device locations such as video cameras, audio speakers, or ceiling microphones.

Map Point 4: Install it. While you’ll rely on trained professionals to install the equipment properly, it won’t live up to its potential without proper commissioning, user training, and regular maintenance. There’s nothing worse than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a robust enterprise communication system and not knowing how to optimize its use.

First, commission the system with a third-party AV professional. By running through all possible scenarios to make sure the system has been configured correctly, commissioning will ensure that it meets the functionality of design intent on day one. Secondly, train all end users on each use scenario so that the system can meet their varying needs. When staff isn’t properly trained on the equipment, it significantly reduces the possibility that they will use it. The contract with the AV integrator/installer should include training. Finally, sign an ongoing maintenance contract with a local, reputable AV equipment maintenance provider. Ask the manufacturer’s representative whom they recommend in your area.

Future Proof Infrastructure

While we don’t know exactly what the future of communications technology will look like, facility executives should “future proof” this infrastructure as much as possible. Make sure the following are true to your collaboration system to promote ultimate flexibility.

Employ a standard protocol video bridge service. The two most common protocols on the market—H.323 and SIP—will allow different vendor equipment to communicate with each other.

Future proof your infrastructure hardware. Install conduit pathways, pull strings, and cabling, which will be difficult to add in the future. Plan for equipment space. Do you need a credenza in the room for AV equipment or is there a telecom closet nearby?

Install proper connectors. A longtime problem has been installing the proper cabling interface that works with different computers for local presentation; VGA, DisplayPort, mini-DisplayPort HDMI, Lighting, and USB-C are all found on different devices. Running Category 6 cable with transceivers at the end allows interfaces to be swapped out as technology changes. In many spaces, facilities also choose to keep a set of dongles that allow for conversion from one connector to another.

Consider new trends, like wireless presentation. The newest in communications technology, wireless presentation offers the most flexibility. One way to utilize it is to install an app on your device that sends your screen’s video output over Wi-Fi to the data network. The other is to use dedicated dongles that connect directly to the hardware in the room.

What’s Next?

Right now, we’re in a transitional period, technologically. Video conferencing is still a critical means of enterprise communication; however, web conferencing, which has brought the ability to share screens, collaborate on the same document simultaneously, and talk to multiple people at their desks or on their cell phones, is quickly consuming the collaboration world. While not yet up to the same caliber of reliability and performance as a traditional point-to-point video conferencing system or telepresence solution, web conferencing will assume a star role soon, as it offers more flexibility and enhanced collaboration features that have become business critical.

conferencing systemSzcodronski is a senior associate, technology consulting at Environmental Systems Design, Inc. in Chicago, IL. He aids in the design of building technology systems such as structured cabling, audio visual, security, and building automation, and assists with technology consulting services for data network, wireless network, voice system, and migration planning design.

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