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Conference challenges mount

The Australian, 19 October 1993

Conference challenges mount

The Australian, 19 October 1993

by Trudi Mcintosh

The nation's rapid uptake of video conferencing has created big staff training problems and dilemmas about fast changing technology, according to a leading video conferencing management consultant.

"There are many unresolved issues which are causing users concern," the managing director of open learning management consultancy firm, John Mitchell & Associates, Mr John Mitchell, said in Adelaide last week.

"They include the crucial issue of training staff, particularly reluctant staff, to use the medium effectively."

Executive decision makers also faced the dilemma of how much they should invest in current technology when a more viable solution might be available in six or 12 months because of the rapid advances in the technology.

"Clients want to keep their option open when they purchase video conferencing equipment," Mr Mitchell told The Australian.

"Two of the issues they are concerned with are interconnectivity between brands of codes and the ability to choose from a range of bandwidths."

It was not surprising the video conferencing revolution had created problems.

Many companies and educational institutions had adapted quickly to the technology on the surface but had not invested in ongoing staff training and system management reviews.

Mr Mitchell has outlined what he believes are the main issue and dilemmas facing users in a paper which is part of his presentation to the Australasian Teleconferencing Association Conference at Hotel Inter-Continental in Sydney next Monday and Tuesday.

Mr Mitchell writes in his paper, Video Conferencing At The Leading Edge in Australia - Issues, Dilemmas and Potential: "Videoconferencing is a complex human activity involving contact between people at two or more sites, which they adjust to with varying degrees of comfort and success.

"Some people love it. Some hate it. Some take a while to warm to it. Some like it up to a point And others can't make their minds up whether they like it or not."

His paper focuses on the main types of video conferencing being used here - compressed, digital and recently introduced desktop versions - and the range of problems users say they face.

Mr Mitchell, who was the founding manager of the highly acclaimed TAFE Channel video conferencing network in South Australia, is the author of a number of local and international papers on video conferencing.

He believes that video conferencing is a "marvelous medium" relevant to Australia's vast distances and national focus to work smarter and to deliver services better.

"But, there is an understandable fear of new technology among some users.

"Videoconferencing looks attractive on the surface but it can appear to be threatening. There are many variables in the learning and training fields that still need to be ironed out."

The crucial issues in continuing success of video conferencing as an effective medium, were management, support and ongoing staff training.

He warned that companies which suffered from the cargo cult syndrome in believing technology wizardry would solve their problems and produce instant benefits, were deluding themselves.

"There is no point in just using technology for technology's sake without investing in systems management and staff training," he said.

"And, it is important that users feel comfortable with the technology."

The local video conferencing market had now reached $15 million annually in hardware alone and would continue to grow.

"But some users who only allowed for a short term (six month) plan and rushed in the technology, are now realising the honeymoon is over You really need a three-year plan to introduce the technology, followed up by evaluations and reviews."

Mr Mitchell is concerned that unless more users regard the training issues seriously, the present problems will multiply with the introduction of desktop video conferencing.

"The technology has come in so fast that we have reached the stage where our management skills have to catch up," Mr Mitchell said.

He believes there is an "enormous and exciting future" for video conferencing.

His Adelaide consultancy company has a wide range of leading industry clients, including the Queensland Government, Queensland TAFE and the Victorian TAFE videoconferencing system network.

It has also been used as a consultancy by the former major vendor of video conferencing equipment in Australia, AAP Communications Services, now PictureTel Australia, a new local subsidiary formed by its US parent, the PictureTel Corp, to market its systems.

Mr Mitchell also said the issue of interconnectivity was again alive. Codec manufacturers' proprietary standards had been a problem in recent years, and while this was being rectified with the introduction of international standards, it was resurfacing to some extent in the newer desktop video conferencing systems.

"Overall, there are many aspects of video conferencing which need to be researched more thoroughly," he said.

"It is hoped that Australian researchers will take up the challenge, enabling Australia to maintain its international profile in the field."