Technology Evolution: Improving Collaboration

EnableUC’s Kevin Kieller contemplates the role of emerging AI technology in building meeting equity and collaboration.

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Technology Evolution: Improving Collaboration

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Editor’s note: Commercial Integrator has teamed up with the IMCCA, the New York-based non-profit industry association for unified communication and workplace collaboration, to produce a quarterly supplement, titled Collaboration Today and Tomorrow, that focuses on all things collaboration from multiple perspectives.

Several years back, for a short time, an attempt was made by one large vendor to relabel Unified Communications (UC) as IC (intelligent communications). This made logical sense, as simply mashing together communications (unifying communications) did not guarantee any business benefit. Also, making communications and collaboration intelligent would certainly have improved efficiency and productivity. Alas, the renaming never took hold. Perhaps, this was because so many of our collective meetings are of the less-than-intelligent variety.

Collaboration can be defined as two or more people working together to deliver more than they could individually; the total being more than the sum of its parts. Collaboration, for most, is expected to occur in meetings…lots and lots of meetings!

Most of us have too many meetings that are too long and less productive than they should be. In fact, back-to-back meetings are the bane of most knowledge workers’ existence. One would hope that human intelligence leverages (or ideally mandates) the Outlook option to shorten meetings by introducing breaks between multiple meetings.

Breaks between meetings that allow for hydration, or bio-breaks supporting reverse-hydration, make meetings more bearable, but here again, do not necessarily improve collaboration within the meeting.

Artificial Intelligence to the Rescue?

Artificial intelligence (AI) has long been assisting collaboration. It has been blurring or replacing our backgrounds, enhancing our video and keeping extraneous sounds from distracting. And yet, crisper imagery and clearer sound does not necessarily improve collaboration.

AI then allowed us to remove wrinkles (soft focus), add virtual hats, tiaras or cats sitting on our heads. As much as the internet loves cats, virtual cats did not improve collaboration. In one case, AI turned a lawyer on a Zoom call into a furry cat. This neither improved collaboration nor helped the lawyer’s case.

More recently, AI has offered to be a dedicated cinematographer and director for all your meetings. In this context, AI can use multiple cameras to better frame meeting participants, helping to ensure all can be seen and heard, whether in-person or remote. AI also promises artistic transitions: pans, zooms, fades, close-ups and long shots. Essentially, it’s your meetings as art.

Multiple cameras in meeting rooms are interesting to videoconferencing vendors, but less so to organizations trying to optimize costs and having yet to equip most smaller meeting rooms with dedicated video hardware of any kind. In fact, multi-camera, AI-directed meetings exist today mostly in product demos. The technology’s effectiveness at improving meetings and the quality of collaboration is untested and unproven.

The Meeting Room of the Future

The concept of meeting equity seeks to give each participant equal ability to see, hear, be seen and be heard. Remote participants feel as if they have a seat at the table. In-person participants can interact with chat, instant feedback, and potentially even access to back-channel communications and information, like remote participants on their second screen.

Meeting equity is increasingly important in our more distributed, hybrid work environments. The currently available approaches to this are helpful, but do not create a shared experience. I may be able to see you clearly, but if I am remote, I am not in the room. With large teams there may in fact be multiple groups in multiple rooms, each having a different, even if purportedly equitable experience.

Virtual reality (VR), even in its current nascent form, where participants often go “legless”, is unique in that meeting equality is ensured. All the participants are transported to the same virtual space, whether that be an office environment, the top of a mountain or a garden complete with a koi pond. In a virtual world, all participants have the same capabilities and limitations … perhaps none of us have legs.

Is AI Done Playing a Behind-the-Scenes Role?

Recently, AI has stepped out from the shadows, no longer satisfied to simply tweak our video and audio, it is now offering to generate the slides we use for our collaboration sessions, take notes during our meetings, and summarize the sentiment of a meeting for those who join late. AI is now asking for a seat at the table.

All the leading collaboration vendors are also touting the capabilities of AI-powered meeting summaries.

Certainly, if you can’t hear others in a meeting, the collaborative aspect is degraded, so better sound pickup and propagation is important. Better quality video may help collaboration as well, but more often better document sharing is likely to improve collaboration. These and other technology improvements can certainly make the experience better, but they don’t really address the nature of the biggest problem.

Making Meetings Better

The trouble is that there are too many bad meetings. These would be meetings, for example, that have no agenda, re-review the same material that was discussed last week, don’t make clear decisions, fail to capture accurate notes, include too many people, and take too long. Lately, people are starting to voice the sentiment “Could this meeting have been an email?” This is a great question to ask.

AI, as a virtual facilitator, is increasingly likely to help determine if we should hold a meeting, encourage us to create an agenda, help us decide who to invite. During the meeting, AI can take notes, record action items, and highlight decisions made.

Technology such as Microsoft’s Speaker Coach, can provide private feedback to each participant. Some examples include suggesting speaking slower, using more inclusive terminology and helping minimize the use of filler words.

After a meeting, AI can summarize the meeting outcomes. For those that were unable or chose not to attend, AI can highlight when they were mentioned, analyze the sentiment of the meeting and flag key moments from the meeting.

If held in a virtual space, an AI-generated avatar may literally have a seat at the table and act as the meeting referee keeping all the human participants on track and on topic. Perhaps, it might even interject to ask clarification around a next step or action item.

Evolving to Better Outcomes

It is clear that collaboration technology that’s directly linked to improved outcomes is the future. AI will certainly play a lead and starring role.

Yes, technology will play a part. But multi-camera rooms are likely to be reserved for executive boardrooms and virtual reality will be slow to emerge. Both of these will likely only deliver equitable collaborative meetings associated when used in specific use cases. Beyond the technology however, expect more organizations to invest in training people on how to conduct more effective meetings. That will likely lead to more short-term wins than a sack of new AI cameras.

For more Collaboration Today and Tomorrow content, check out our website archives.

Kevin Kieller is principal at EnableUC.

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