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Video conferencing viewed as critical link

George C. Ford, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa –

When ESP International holds its annual meeting later this month, employees from China, India and Taiwan will participate along with their counterparts at the company’s northeast Cedar Rapids headquarters.

No, ESP will not be flying employees to Eastern Iowa for the meeting. Rather, they will participate through state-of-the-art video conferencing that employs high-definition video and sound to create the next best thing to attending in person.

“We tried Skype several years ago, but the quality just wasn’t there, and we needed some additional functionality,” said Mike Hamilton, management information system manager at ESP.

“We needed to be able to share applications and our desktops. We do quite a bit of collaboration in our meetings.”

While desktop conferencing and multisite meeting rooms are the main distance-conferencing tools for companies today, two recent surveys of more than 630 companies by CDW LLC of Vernon Hills, Ill., found 75 percent planning to adopt advanced video conferencing by 2013.

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“Companies see video conferencing as a great tool to collaborate remotely while cutting travel costs,” said Christine Holloway, vice president of CDW, a video solutions provider.

“Without video conferencing, you have to plan travel time and pay all the associated costs to get quality face-to-face time with a client.

“Now at a moment’s notice you can have the same benefits of that meeting without any of that travel planning and with reduced cost over time.”

ESP, which has employees “on the ground” at its plants in China, India and Taiwan, holds regular meetings each week using its Cisco-Tandberg video conferencing equipment. Employees who are traveling can use Tandberg’s Movi application software to participate using their laptop computer.

“Getting that whole in-the-room presence, seeing people on a big screen in high-definition video is really important,” Hamilton said. “When you’re doing applications development, communication is really key.

“It’s usually not recommended to have your development team off-site, but this has given us a big advantage by being able to meet face to face, sharing applications and looking at programming.”

Tony Hallagan, ESP supply base sourcing manager, said video meetings with employees in China and India typically are held before or after normal working hours in Cedar Rapids.

“It’s a difference of 13 or 14 hours with China, depending on whether we’re in daylight saving time, and 11 or 12 hours with India,” Hallagan said. “Almost all of our meetings happen either early in the morning or in the evening.

“We try to alternate that, so certain meetings with our employees in India are always in the U.S. morning and their nighttime. When things come up, I can meet them in the evening using my laptop computer at home.”

Jeff Hamilton, president and chief executive officer of ESP, said video conferencing reduces travel expenditures, improves employee productivity and communication, and facilitates quick design changes by allowing engineers in Cedar Rapids to zoom in on a piece of equipment.

“In the past, we would have to arrange to have photos taken and sent to us for review,” Hamilton said. “We would have to wait a day to address the problem.

“Now we can collaborate and often solve the problem in the same meeting.”

Video conferencing also has a profound impact on employee training, according to Ceara Kirchner, ESP supply chain specialist.

“Before we implemented our new system, I had been starting to train our employees in India using Work Instructions, WebEx and phone conferences,” Kirchner said. “It took me about a month to get them trained on one thing because we were moving some of our processes from Cedar Rapids to India.

“After we implemented video conferencing, it took about a week and they were able to start doing it. I was able to see by their facial expressions whether they were understanding what I was saying.”

Hamilton said ESP also has been able to involve customers such as John Deere in video conferences, giving them a better understanding of how the Cedar Rapids company handles their interests.

“During a recent meeting with our engineers in China, one of John Deere’s main supply base people was down at our facility in Shenzhen,” Hamilton said. “We were talking about a major initiative we’re doing with John Deere in China. It was very valuable to have that face-to-face meeting with the company’s representative in China.

“We’re also planning to offer our video conferencing facilities to our clients.”

While ESP has ramped up its video conferencing capabilities, Justyn Miller, CEO of South Slope Cooperative Communications in North Liberty, said the growth of desktop teleconferencing has reduced the use of his company’s video conferencing center.

“We plan to shut down the center at the end of this year and reallocate those resources,” Miller said. “We have a few clients who still use video conferencing for legal seminars and depositions.”

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