Meeting Online Can Save Money, Boost Productivity

FRAMINGHAM (03/03/2000) - IBM Corp. recently wrapped up e.forum2000, an extraordinary three-week sales conference involving 2,500 employees and business partners from more than 90 countries.

IBM's satisfaction with the conference: high. Travel costs and effort associated with it: virtually zero.

The conference was held online. Delegates participated at any time of the day or night from their homes and offices, using a PC, browser and telephone line.

Not so long ago, Web collaboration meant e-mail, chat rooms and document-sharing. No more. Creative Web-based companies are creating rich multimedia environments that closely resemble - and in some cases are better than - real-time, in-person meetings.

The appeal of such online conferences goes beyond the obvious savings of travel time and money. Ken Thornton, an IBM general manager, says IBM can also reach more people, increase customer "face time" - since salespeople spend less time outside their territories - and create reusable learning modules.

Compared with last year, IBM was able to more than triple the number of conference participants. Yet the company slashed the cost of the conference by more than 60%. Since staff weren't being taken from their offices and hotel bills weren't piling up, organizers could space the conference over three weeks instead of the typical three days.

As a keynote speaker for the conference, I couldn't have had it easier. My presentation slides were uploaded to a secure Web site. I logged on to the Web and viewed each slide while recording my remarks over the telephone. I could simply erase and rerecord my remarks for a particular slide if I wasn't happy with them.

Delegates could log on and listen to my remarks while viewing the slides at the times that best suited them. Unlike with a real-time speech, delegates could pause and review my remarks or even spread my speech out over several days.

Delegates asked questions, and I replied online.

A conference like IBM's can offer keynote speakers and panels, breakout sessions, exhibits, a reference library, open space for conversation about issues of interest, a bookstore, private meeting spaces for teams, sessions by invitation, company suites, a conference packet and more. All activities can take place online. IBM also used regional conference calls.

The knowledge gained and processes recorded during such sessions are valuable assets. The information can be used as a starting point for further conversations and additional development or distributed and reused elsewhere in the company.

The ability to capture and reuse company knowledge is one aspect of "digital capital" - the new form of wealth that distinguishes winners from losers in the digital economy. Companies can no longer afford to wait for semiannual, quarterly or even monthly meetings to share insights within a team. The pace of business is just too fast. Companies are increasingly relying on the intellectual synergies that flow from employee discussions and collaboration.

The Web provides an increasingly valuable platform for building ongoing dialogues within the company as well as among companies, their suppliers and their customers.

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