Brett Swartz ()
Sequestration and broader budget cuts have been swift and relatively unsparing in their impact on defense agency in-person conferences and training events. The Defense Intelligence Agency 2013 Defense Intelligence Worldwide conference, the annual Air Force Information Technology conference — as well as scores of others — have been canceled due to budget pressures and uncertainties.
In-person conferences still hold significant value to military attendees, as it is difficult to replicate hands-on exposure to new technologies, or one-on-one time that can be used to forge and deepen relationships. But the budget edict shows little sign of abating, and as a result military decision makers are in search of alternatives. A path rapidly gaining traction is web conferencing and collaboration, viewed as a cost-effective way to replicate and even enhance in-person conference communications and training.
One of the most prominent and heavily used enterprise collaboration tools is DISA’s Defense Connect Online (DCO), which is used by hundreds of thousands of DoD employees and contractors to collaborate virtually anytime from anywhere. As budgets have tightened and resulted in a need to more cost-effectively conduct meetings and training, DISA witnessed DCO grow to more than 800,000 registered users, with these users clocking more than 50 million minutes of web conferencing per month.
Congress is also taking note of the cost savings and productivity benefits that conferencing technologies can deliver. On July 10, new legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives that seeks to cut the $15 billion in federal agencies’ travel expenses through expanded use of videoconferencing. The “Cut the Waste, Stay in Place Act of 2013” would task the Office of Management and Budget to put in place a plan with a stated goal of reducing spending on agency travel 50 percent by 2017.
As more and more military agencies adopt web conferencing technology, there are a few strategies to consider in order to fully maximize its benefits.
Ensure intuitive two-way collaboration
Enabling web-based access to conference and training content, audio and video is a good start, but a rich conferencing experience must extend beyond a one-way dialogue to the virtual attendee. Agencies should seek out solutions that fully support two-way collaboration and attendee participation via real-time polling, two-way audio and video, instant messaging for Q&As, etc.
Two-way collaboration capabilities are key for web conferencing because there is already the physical detachment of not being in the same room, so creating a dynamic experience where the participant can fully engage will go a long way.
Additionally, the participant experience for web conferencing — whether accessing the event from a desktop or mobile device — must be intuitive. A big part of the business case for web conferencing is to cut down on conference logistics and travel costs, and agencies must budget for user training this undermines that business case.
Extend web conferencing to mobile devices
Budget challenges facing defense and civilian agencies are injecting mobility into conferences and training events through the use of web conferencing and collaboration software. But enabling mobile access to these events and training is different than enabling individuals to use smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices — as opposed to desktops — to communicate and collaborate.
Adobe is witnessing a steady increase in usage of our web conferencing solution by DoD employees and contractors via tablets and smartphones. Untethering individuals from the desktop aligns with the unpredictable and mobile nature of how warfighters, officers and military staffers work and live. For collaboration and learning to continue through a decline in physical conferences, agencies must continue to extend platforms that support web meetings, e-learning and webinars across all devices.
Platforms available today do not require agencies to scrap existing investments in learning management systems and Unified Communications applications such as audio, email, IM, chat, videoconferencing and VoIP — and instead allow for seamless extension of these capabilities to mobile devices.
Make it secure yet extensible
As military agencies broaden access to more touch points, security remains paramount. Military agencies must balance the highest level of security protocols with an ability for the web conferencing platform to be flexible enough to allow agencies to customize the solution for their specific needs. Ensure the web conferencing platform uses SSL encryption for the secure delivery of data, voice, and video between applications and users, as well as passcode-protected conferencing “rooms” and enhanced session management.
Security must not limit features and functionality. Each agency or military unit has unique communications needs, and enabling IT professionals and developers to access APIs and SDKs to extend beyond core web conferencing capabilities enhances the communications experience through a whole new set of applications.
Explore feasibility of virtual conferences
Each agency — and even branches within each military organization — faces unique needs and challenges to maintain communication and education as in-person conferences are canceled or scaled down.
In recent years, a predominant use of web conferencing solutions was for individuals who could not attend a conference in person. But we are starting to see military organizations conduct entire conferences and training events virtually — and early indications are these virtual events are delivering tangible cost savings and results. In March, the Naval Safety and Environmental Training Center, which provides education and training for military and civilian Navy and Marine Corps personnel, shifted a 1,500 person training conference that had previously been held in-person to a virtual event due to budget constraints. The move to a virtual conference after 20 years as a physical conference reduced event costs by 50 percent and resulted in savings of $1 million for travel and per diem costs. Virtual conferences are not applicable for every conference or training event, but it is an option that agencies should consider in the evaluation of the best path forward, depending on budget and attendee requirements.
While budget cuts will eventually ease, the financial constraints present an opportune time for agencies to evaluate in-person conferences on a case-by-case basis, and determine if cost savings can be achieved through web conferencing — without impacting communications and collaboration.
Brett Swartz is VP Federal Sales, Collaboration Services at Adobe Systems.