For the Pan American Health Organization, advanced conferencing technologies are literally a lifesaver.
The agency, which is a regional office of the World Health Organization, uses video- and audio-conferencing to enable its 2,000 employees stationed throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to share valuable information without having to travel to headquarters in Washington.
"There is a large cost to bring everybody here to gather in a boardroom. The savings from reduced travel costs can be redirected into more programs," says Dr. Richard Van West-Charles, the organization's information and knowledge management area director.
Van West-Charles uses Web conferencing technology from Canada-based Elluminate to allow his users to discuss important health and living standards issues. "We have significantly reduced the amount of face-to-face meetings required and replaced them with virtual sessions," he says. In fact, within a single year, the organization has had almost 1,500 videoconferencing sessions.
But Van West-Charles says costs are not the only benefit. Videoconferencing lets users stay entrenched in their locales without disruptions. "Our users are in communities trying to confront the local health needs," he says.
Conferencing tools also allow users in different areas to participate in training workshops as well as conduct impromptu meetings where they share their wealth of knowledge with one another.
The key to the organization's success with conferencing has been an understanding that users need a combination of face-to-face and virtual meetings. "Face-to-face is getting to know each other and beginning to develop trust among participants. Once you have that trust, it makes collaboration easier in the virtual world," Van West-Charles says.
He credits recent improvements in conferencing technology and infrastructure with being able to convince users to go virtual. So far, he's been able to add on multilingual translation and document collaboration to the PAHO's list of conferencing features. "Today, we have simultaneous translation -- English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. That way we can have effectual discussions and correct documents together in real time and end up with a final product," he says.
Van West-Charles says it's critical for organizations to make sure users are trained and that the infrastructure is intact before deploying it to the masses. It's also important to understand the limits of the technology, such as connectivity in Third-World countries. "I have to sensitize my users to the fact that the technology may fail due to power outages or bandwidth problems," he says.
However, conferencing accounts for these possibilities by enabling sessions to be recorded. Users can also review documents and other materials shared during a conference and offer their input to attendees.
Van West-Charles puts time into helping users learn how to conduct an efficient virtual meeting. "Too many times, people meet online and it's not clear why they are meeting or what's expected of them. It's critical that you plan ahead for every virtual meeting you're going to have. Facilitation is important," he says.
He also encourages his peers to roll out the technology in a decentralized manner so that users can embrace it on their own terms. "If you introduce a system that is controlled and centralized, you create a barrier to use. Once you decentralize that system, you reduce the burden on any specific unit to be directly responsible for hand-holding," he says.
He recommends distributing tools for scheduling and training as well as a system of templates for sending out meeting invitations so that IT does not become a bottleneck. At the PAHO, meeting minutes and supporting materials are entered into a knowledge database so that users can reference them at any time.
Van West-Charles plans to continue to expand the uses of the conferencing technology and enable his workers to stay in the field where they are able to help people. "When we started, there was a degree of hesitation," he says. "But now we can say conferencing has been a great experience for all of us."
Sandra Gittlen is a freelance technology editor near Boston. Former events editor and writer at IDG publication Network World, she developed and hosted the magazine's technology road shows. She is also the former managing editor of Network World's popular networking site, Fusion. She has won several industry awards for her reporting, including the American Society of Business Publication Editors' prestigious Gold Award. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.