The Difference Between Yes and Yes: The Reality of Video in Business

There’s an old saying among us weather-beaten sales people: “When I’m selling, I speak in your language; when I’m buying, you speak in mine.” In fact, that’s an interesting idea to keep in mind when conducting any business transaction. Consensus or agreement -- getting to “yes” in any business communication -- is a lot like sales. You have to speak the language of the person you want to convince.

When everyone is speaking the same verbal language, however, the way we’re really communicating is more physically nuanced, which means the visual component in communications becomes more important. In other words, when I’m selling to you, I’m going to want to see you.

That’s why video conferencing is becoming such an important part of commerce and communications. From the business-level packages available in Skype to the WebRTC approach in simple video conferencing applications like Google Hangouts, video is an increasingly commonplace way to do business.

Why is that? Think about how the word “yes” is used in conversation. When we’re speaking and I say “yes,” I might really mean “yes, I hear you,” rather than “yes, I agree with you.” That’s not readily obvious through audio alone.

Video, on the other hand, offers a sense of verification, because you can read the body language of the other person in the conversation and know what he or she really means. Video conferencing allows you to understand the difference between “yes” and “yes” -- which can really be the difference between “yes” and “no.”

In general, video allows both parties in the conversation to work at the “speed of trust.” You can trust the person you’re working with because you can read their body language. You know what they may be concerned with much more easily than if you were just hearing their voice.

What does that mean for the technology itself? We seem to be heading in the direction of video conferencing as a service. While interesting from an insider’s perspective, it is not a particularly earth-shaking development to users. Users are just looking for a reliable solution that works in any application -- whether on-premise or remotely.

That’s why WebRTC (limited functionality video conferencing as a free Web service) isn’t the seachange that industry followers first thought it would be. The industry had itself wrapped around the axle on the breakthrough that WebRTC would bring to communication. There was much discussion about video conferencing on mobile smart devices replacing traditional desktop applications. I don’t think so.

In general, if you have an iPhone or Android, and you use an application constantly, you may download it. If you use it only occasionally, you are likely to still use the full-featured version on your main computing device. That’s because smart device applications are almost always sub-optimal. They are never quite as good as the web version, even though they may be packaged to look good and perform well on the smart device.

Users don’t care about the sophistication of the technology; they’re just interested in making sure that it works when they need it. To the power user, WebRTC may truly be a breakthrough. To the occasional user, it will be no more than a convenience that they pick up when they remember it.

And that should be a lesson for technology vendors in general. People don’t buy technology. They buy things that solve problems. Technologists have to remember that they are not really building products that people buy. They create means by which people can solve particular problems.

In today’s business world, the over-arching problem that technology must solve is the transactional component. It’s about how people work together to achieve consensus, to move forward -- to get to “yes.”

That’s where video shines. And when technology makes it easier to get to “yes” -- well, now you’re speaking my language.

This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine April 2014

Language and the Interconnectedness of Things

The Internet of Things has spawned more than just an increased infiltration of web technology into our day-to-day lives. It has introduced a much more connected experience among users of web technology every day -- let’s call it the “Interconnectedness of Things.”

That, in turn, has made it more important than ever that we appreciate the benefits of a common means of communication in science, technology and business. For what it’s worth, that common means of communication is (at least for the foreseeable future) the English language.

Despite the technological advances attributable to China and Russia, English is still the de facto language of science and business. As far back as 2008, Research Trends magazine noted that English is the first language of about 400 million people in 53 countries, and the second language of as many as 1.4 billion more. English, the magazine contended, is “well positioned to become the default language of science.”

As for business, a 2012 Reuters news agency survey conducted by Ipsos Global Public Affairs showed that more than two-thirds of employees of 26 nationalities who deal with people in other countries use English most often.

"The most revealing aspect of this survey is how English has emerged as the default language for business around the world," said Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos.

What does that mean in today’s interconnected age? Common communications skills create more options for more people, and yield better economic prospects for people with those skills. A common means of communication enables assimilation and creates positive changes in the culture of science and business. Distance is no longer an issue when the Interconnectedness of Things allows us to employ that common language to take full advantage of the Internet.

Breaking all of society into smaller lumps with no common means of communication is disadvantageous to progress in science, technology and business. Think of how much poorer your Internet experience might be if you could only read Russian or Chinese. It would be a more skewed experience with a much more limited point of view. That’s already been proven to some extent by the Chinese censorship of the Internet. You simply can’t fully appreciate the Internet without English.

On the other hand, resorting to a common language is also possibly damaging to the cultural identity and sense of heritage for non-native English speakers. According to the MIT Indigenous Language Initiative, approximately 6,000 languages are spoken around the world. Of those, they say, only about 600 are “confidently expected to survive this century.”

That is a real tragedy, but the plain fact is that affluence is tied to common language. If it were not, this trend toward English as the default language for science and business would just not be happening.

So, what’s to be done about language, culture and progress? In an ideal world, we’d all learn to use one language for science, technology and business, and learn, respect and use others for cultural identity and a sense of community -- especially in our polyglot nation.

That requires some flexibility in how languages themselves are developed. We need to be more adaptable and sensitive to other cultures as we use language.

Some languages, however, seem institutionally disposed toward inflexibility. For example, L’Academie Francaise protects the French language, allowing only a few new words each year to enter the lexicon. A commission of the academy’s members (known somewhat supernaturally as “the immortals”) regularly publishes a dictionary of the French language, considered to be the “official” usage guide.

That’s different from the way in which the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, provides its updates. Slang, new interpretations of established words, and even new concepts seem to be embraced rather than limited.

In my opinion, an overly academic approach to language has stunted the growth and evolution of French as the lingua franca (irony) of business and science. Not that French is doing all that poorly -- it is an official language of many international organizations including the United Nations, the EU, and NATO. And in 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek proclaimed French to be one of the top three most useful languages for business, behind English and Chinese.

But it’s this rigid approach to monitoring the language that is keeping French in the third spot, despite France’s remarkable history of scientific advancement. To some extent, French speakers are taking note. The official L’Academie Francaise dictionary is increasingly disregarded by users, in favor of language that has naturally fallen into common usage.

That’s for the best. The more flexibility there is in allowing a language to change and evolve, the richer it becomes. The richer it becomes, the more accepted it is as a common means of communication. And the more common a means of communication it becomes, the more it contributes to a connected experience -- the real endgame in the new Interconnectedness of Things.

This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine October 2014

Business Continuity: Preparing for Late Summer’s Weather Havoc

Ah, the late summer months. We wait all year for what they bring: Cookouts, beach outings, holidays…

earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, flashfloods, mudslides

I don’t mean to make light of the tragedies that have beset so many this year. My good thoughts go out to all. The point for business, however, is that the same weather conditions that make late summer so inviting for outdoor living are also the catalysts for natural disasters that can completely derail a company’s operations. And yet, many businesses have no continuity of operations plans to stay running when nature decides to put a stop to travel.

We all remember the 2010 eruptions of Iceland’s unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which disrupted air travel from April through June before finally subsiding in October. During that time, air travel between Europe and the US was hamstrung, with London’s Heathrow Airport all but shut down for a week straight. This year’s equivalent is the Bardarbunga volcano. In late August, Iceland's Meteorological Office finally lowered the aviation threat level from red (the worst) to orange (merely frighteningly risky).

At around the same time in August, a 6.0 earthquake struck Napa, CA, igniting fires that damaged homes and creating almost impassable traffic conditions in the worst disaster to hit the area since the late 1980s.

And these random events are really just the cappers to more predictable natural disasters that hit large parts of the US every year at this time. Hurricane season in the Atlantic goes from June to November. (Again at the end of August this year, Tropical Storm Cristobal was upgraded to hurricane status, threatening businesses and homes from the Bahamas to the Southern US). In the West, where earthquakes and hurricanes are not as pressing a concern, nature offers up wildfires instead. The majority of Texas experiences a fire season that stretches from mid-July to mid-September.

Four years ago, the Iceland volcano caught the entire world by surprise, and businesses bore the brunt of the flight restrictions. But as the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Disasters threaten business every year, like clockwork, and yet we don’t seem to learn from these experiences.

There’s simply no excuse not to have some plan in place for business continuity when nature turns ugly.

 

Larger companies may have some type of risk assessment or continuity of operations plan in place. Small and mid-sized companies are not typically so forward thinking. When things turn ugly, sales, supply chain communications and customer service can all come to a grinding halt.

How do you make sure that collaboration and information sharing can happen between geographically disparate locations, even when headquarters locations are no longer accessible?

If you just don’t know where to start in creating a plan, take a page from the federal government – which for once has actually been a bit ahead of the game. A federal continuity of operations framework has been around since 2007, when National Security Presidential Directive 51 created a National Continuity Policy for the Federal Government.

Also, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides an outline of the requirements for COOP planning in the federal government. The FEMA overview includes items such as records management, continuity communications and “devolution of control and direction” – that is, moving responsibility and authority for mission critical functions to other personnel as needed.

In the private sector, critical business functions consider in continuity of operations planning range from emergency payroll and access to accounting systems to identifying a secondary location from which operations can run. Beyond that, you need reliable communications and information sharing when people themselves are scattered.

Today’s technology offers video communications that is almost as good as being there in person. Teams can access important work documents for collaboration, and even monitor the safety of employees in remote locations. Information can be shared between locations. Conferences can be recorded and reviewed later when it’s convenient for the people hardest hit by the disaster.

Remember, though, that dedicated video conferencing with proprietary technology is a fair-weather friend. When disaster strikes you don’t want your video technology stuck in a dark conference room in an empty building. You need a solution where laptop, desktop, tablet and smartphone video conferencing works together to keep your key employees connected. Cloud-based video technology is a good solution here, because it doesn’t require complicated on-premises infrastructure, and it allows you to run business as usual.

Please take special care in the heavy weather conditions of the late summer months. And create a continuity of operations plan for when disasters strike, to so when Mother Nature wreaks havoc, your business won’t suffer.

This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine September 2014

How Millennials Are Driving 2015 Tech Trends

This time of year, just about every industry analyst and technology vendor trots out his or her predictions for top technology trends to watch next year, and I’m no different.

This time, though, I’ve also sifted a bit through what other industry observers have to say. Interestingly, the predictions nearly everyone is making stem from a reality in the workplace – namely that Generation Y and Millennial employees have certain expectations for technology in the enterprise, which savvy vendors are meeting.

The emerging trends for 2015 embrace expanded use of video in Unified Communications, Infrastructure and Software-as-a-Service, and low-cost computing devices. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Unified Communications (UC), Video and the Cloud

In October, Frost & Sullivan released a report on the “Office of the Future,” noting that Millennials will make up 75% of the US workforce by 2025. An average user may utilize four devices per day, the report said. So the workforce is becoming increasingly mobile and the work environment itself is becoming smarter than ever. That means next generation technologies need to be introduced into the UC concept, just to accommodate the expectations of Millennial and Generation Y employees.

Another analyst firm, Ovum, also places Unified Communications on its list of 2015 Trends to Watch. Noting that cloud-based communications services are transforming UC, Ovum suggests that better integration and lower price points will continue to drive enterprise adoption of video into this service.

In my experience, businesses are rapidly moving to cloud-based solutions for enterprise communications. Video is not only becoming part of every conference room; it’s increasingly at the fingertips of nearly every employee. Now that public cloud offerings like Amazon Web Services and the IBM Cloud have the bandwidth, stability and availability to be practical business solutions, employees can reliably and securely meet over video wherever they happen to be – whether on their laptops, tablets, or smartphones.

Infrastructure and video software delivered via the cloud is dramatically changing the UC framework, creating lower-priced, highly scalable solutions for a connected experience among employees, vendors, partners, and customers.

Computing Everywhere, IT-as-a-Service

Building on the idea above, the analyst firm Gartner in October released predictions for top IT strategic trends in 2015. Like its competitors, Gartner saw a greater emphasis on mobility, noting that the computing environment “will need to adapt to the requirements of the mobile user.”

Part of that emphasis for business was what Gartner calls “Computing Everywhere,” which it connects with “Cloud/Client Computing and Web-Scale IT.” As cloud and mobile computing converge, industry will see the growth of “centrally coordinated applications that can be delivered to any device,” Gartner noted.

The maturation of Infrastructure-as-a-Service technology is leading to more and better Software-as-a-Service enterprise applications for the enterprise. These cloud offerings are redefining how we think about team collaboration and document sharing.

These days, just about any company can put video IT infrastructure in the cloud, and it can be of huge business benefit. Security issues are dramatically reduced, which lets companies make the best use of the technology on whichever device an employee happens to be working.

By delivering and maintaining IT as a service in the cloud, you’ve nearly done away with expensive, complicated on-premise server technology. Combined with less need for complicated security protocols, collaboration within and among companies is much easier. As the year goes on, we’ll start to see an even greater variety of cloud offerings, such as the rise of real-time communication applications. By that point, computing is truly going to be everywhere.

Low-Cost Computing in the Enterprise

Businesses are starting to look more closely at ultra-low-cost computing devices, like Chromebooks. According to another report by Gartner this past summer, Chromebook sales could triple to 14.4 million units by 2017. This year’s ales of the devices are on track to top last year’s by a whopping 79 percent.

Isabelle Durand, principal analyst at Gartner, said that "by adopting Chromebooks and cloud computing, businesses can benefit; they can shift their focus from managing devices to managing something much more important — their data."

They’re not only managing their data better, they’re also managing their people, productivity and communications better. One big reason is that end points are changing dramatically. These low-cost computing devices can lead to dramatic cost reductions for video and video-related applications. With a Chromebook PC and a quality pan/tilt/zoom camera, a business can cut the cost of video in laptop communications by up to 80 percent per end point.

And let’s not kid ourselves – Millennials and Generation Y employees are driving the rapidly growing interest in Chromebook technology for businesses, at least to some extent. Chromebook sales were predominant in the education market in past years, and the students that swore by them a few years ago are now today’s up and coming corporate workers.

That’s why so many predictions about technology trends in the coming year have an overt focus on video. The young people that will account for the majority of the labor force in just over a decade are not only very comfortable with video, they prefer it as a means of engagement.

We’re at an interesting crossroads, technologically speaking. Increasing demand for video, reduced cost for infrastructure, improved software capabilities and dramatically more affordable end points are all being pushed by a very real demographic shift in the work force, and how these workers interact with technology.

This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine February 2015

Don’t Ride a Horse and Buggy on the Internet Superhighway

There’s so much talk about Gigabit Ethernet to the home that you’d think we’re all only months away from insanely fast business-grade Internet connections in our family rooms. While in general that’s probably true, it begs the question: So what?

Ultimately, if you’re not using that business-grade connectivity for anything more than refreshing your browser faster, what’s the point? Let’s look only at what’s going on in my neck of the woods in Austin, TX. Google Fiber’s plan to build out high-speed fiber to the home in Austin has prompted the Time Warner cable franchise to respond by boosting its network speeds to 300 Mbps. Grande Communications is jumping into the game by offering gigabit fiber to the home for $64.99 per month.

That’s just in Austin. Google is discussing the same buildout plans in 34 cities and 9 metro areas across the US. Add in competing services and we could be witnessing the early stages of truly transformative technology.

Here’s the catch: It’s only transformative technology if you actually do something differently with it. Faster Internet needs an end. When you look at how we work today, it’s not much different than when all we had was phone-grade connection to the home. The ways we use the Internet -- the applications we claim to rely on -- have remained largely unchanged in over a decade.

On the Internet Superhighway, the horse and buggy is not a suitable vehicle.

And there’s really no downside to trying something new. Internet speeds previously reserved only for big businesses will now be available at home, at a cost not much higher than your monthly cell phone bill. This in turn has allowed the creation of new applications to really take advantage of the broader bandwidth.

High-end business-grade applications are emerging as Software-as-a-Service. Your desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet can give you access to high definition video that makes the online meeting experience almost like being there. Sharing work files and recording meetings or training session make real collaboration easy. And if you’re ahead of the curve on implementing these solutions, you have a leg up on your competition. You’re making it easier for you, your employees and your partners to do real work.

That’s real work; it doesn’t have to mean more work. In a 2012 telecommuting study from The University of Texas at Austin, survey respondents actually spent more hours working than when in the office. They willingly replaced the time they spent commuting with more time in front of the computer.

But working harder is not enough. None of us really wants to work harder, do we? We want to work smarter, and turn the advantages of these blazing fast Internet speeds into a way to generate competitive advantage. We need to embrace new solutions. Otherwise we’ll just be stuck in our horse and buggy, content to have a faster connection to Netflix in the occasional few hours a week that we’re not tied to the computer for business.

All this magical new technology. If we’re not starting to use it now, what’s the point? If we can’t use it to transform our lives, why do we even want it begin with? If we can use it, why aren’t we?

This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine September 2014

Yo and the Complicated World of Simple Expression

In past commentaries, I’ve talked about Leonardo da Vinci’s notion that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Where that notion needs better understanding is in the subtle complexities of communication.

Nothing proves that point more than the latest media-darling app, “Yo.” The blogosphere is teeming with stories about this one-word app, which was started as a joke, built in eight hours and launched just after April Fool’s Day. Yo’s developers have raised $1.2 million in venture capital from investors including Mobli co-founder Moshe Hogeg.

Yo reduces communication to a simple blurting of “Yo,” which apparently means as many things as there are people using it. Yo’s designer Or Arbel has been widely quoted as saying Yo’s appeal is in what they’re calling “context-based messaging.” As Orbel puts it, “You understand by the context what is being said.”

Opinions vary from Yo being the harbinger of the end of civilization to the beginning of a new way of communicating. There’s no denying its appeal: According to Tech Crunch, Yo already has over 50,000 active users. Users have sent over 4 million Yo’s to each other.

You can’t top Yo for simplicity, I suppose. And it does validate the argument that, when it comes to the usefulness of technology, simplicity beats everything else. People want a simple thing before they want more sophisticated functionality -- or so they may think. They want to see technology do one thing very well -- it makes the application or device more likely to be trusted.

But what’s important to remember in all this talk of simplicity is that “context-based messaging” does not equal communications. Reducing expression to what you can fit in a tweet or a short text is the opposite of communications.

Communication can always take one of two paths: Kneejerk reaction or storytelling. There will always be room for a “shock the monkey” version of expression, where a response can be reduced to a “Yo” or a “like” (the latter of which could replace the word altogether with its thumbs-up icon).

But for most of business, communication is more like storytelling. In business, the context that Yo developers believe is implicit in their mono-syllabic messaging only comes at the very end of a sometimes long collaborative process, where the context-based message may ultimately be “yes” or “no.”

The trend toward micro-expression as the norm is leading to a dumbed-down version of communication. If you take “context-based messaging” to a logical conclusion, it’s easy to see that we’re creating adult consumers with no ability to communicate complex ideas to anyone other than a close circle of friends.

If you think this argument reduces the debate to absurdity, consider that the simple and low-risk communication means of voice mail is greatly on the decline. According to The New York Times last month, a spokesperson for Vonage reported that voice mail deposits had dropped by 8 percent from October 2013 to April of this year.

The Times (and bloggers discussing the article) suggests that voice mail produces similar feelings of anxiety as public speaking, because it “represents a gesture of vulnerable intimacy.” One young woman was quoted as saying, “The only reason you leave a voice mail is so the person can hear the sound of your voice. It almost seems presumptuous, for that reason.”

How presumptuous are you being when you want to convey a message’s importance -- or when you want to be certain you are not being misunderstood by the lack of tone in text communications? Have we really gotten to the point that we’d rather not be bothered by the subtleties of the spoken word?

Business communications will always be the domain of storytelling and real conversation. The simplicity business people need from technology is not an application for people who find 140 characters long-winded. We’re looking for a simple way to let people work together, share important information, and understand unspoken aspects of communication such as body language and tone of voice. Technology like video conferencing, that makes this type of collaboration and communication more effective, is getting to a level of simplicity that allows the complexities of communication to be more effortless and inclusive -- leading to better business results.

At that point, you can feel confident about making the most effective simple context-based messages: “Yes” or “No.”

This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine July 2014