Using Communication Technologies to Leverage HR Productivity

Paul Trout

Twelve years ago, as a first-year MBA student at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, I was fortunate to gain a summer internship in the Bay Area with Acer Computers of Taiwan. My project? Develop a marketing plan for a little gizmo they called a "Web cam." It would be used to revolutionize business communication between people all over the globe, they said!

Conceptually, they were spot on, however technology in 1998 wasn’t quite where it needed to be for business to take notice. Our Acer team held many business conferences on Web cam between the Bay Area and Taiwan, but found the transmissions to be grainy, choppy and inconsistent. We all were amazed at the technology, but realized that we would have to wait for it to catch up with itself.

My final marketing plan predicted that the use of Web cams for business purposes was far off into the future. In 2009, we are on the precipice of business having inexpensive tools at hand to "go virtual."

Why is this important for human resources practitioners?

Ultimately, human resources is about communication between people, leading to better performance for an organization. Communication encompasses three elements:
  1. Visual communication: 55 percent of messages sent are by what is seen by the eye
  2. Vocal communication: 38 percent of messages sent are by vocal tone
  3. Verbal communication: 7 percent of messages sent are by actual words
Human resources professionals concerned about the performance of their organization now have a powerful tool to help increase understanding between people, particularly in companies that have dispersed workforces. This will lead to much higher productivity.

For some time, businesses have had only had three main options to facilitate communication between its employees, vendors and customers:
  1. Live (100 percent of messages received)
    a. Best option
    b. Not always possible due to remoteness of parties and expense
  2. Telephone (45 percent of messages received)
    a. Convenient
    b. Over half of the intended message is not received because visual communication is missing
  3. E-mail (7 percent of messages received)
    a. Ubiquitous
    b. Fraught with the possibility (and actuality) of miscommunication
Is it any wonder why human resources professionals and managers find themselves spending a great deal of time entangled in untangling miscommunications between what was interpreted vs. what was intended?

Certainly, the advent of video conferencing has helped add a visual element to effective communications. But the fixed expense of buying equipment, paying high fees for using it and the lack of mobility it presents for people in the field have prevented its wider acceptance.

It’s all about to change for the better.

Back in 1998, three technology/psychology issues had to be solved for the business community to adopt Web conferencing:
  1. Web cams would have to be built into the computer hardware.
  2. Transmission speeds of data would have to universally be much higher.
  3. There had to be a compelling reason for businesspeople to use it.
1. Built-in Web cams

Most laptops and desktops manufactured and sold in 2009 have a built-in Web cam. Apple has incorporated them into their products for several years. As technology spending increases in 2010 and companies replace older computer equipment, the possibility of ubiquity of Web cams in office environments within several years is very strong. This takes away the need for a special expense to buy Web cams; de facto, they will already be purchased.

2. Transmission speeds of data are higher

Most corporations (and even home offices) have a minimum of broadband, with many mid-size companies having T1 or T3 systems in place. This assures a much smoother "live-like" conversation over the web–speeds have increased enough that delivering 10-30 frames per second is not an issue.

The continuing shift from analog telephone lines to VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) for telecommunications can also enable people to use it for voice transmissions in concurrence with Web cams.

3. The compelling reason: The economy

Larger multi-office businesses in the past invested in videoconferencing equipment because they saw the benefit in reducing travel. But due to its large initial and ongoing expenses, only large firms could benefit from it. And it never really worked that well to begin with.

Now, as the entire economy is affected, all companies are looking to realize cost savings through reduced travel. The use of Web cams and virtual technology presents an inexpensive way for nearly every company to use it in some way.

Human resources functions that will be transformed include recruiting, training, managing and participating in remote leadership team meetings.

A fourth option for helping human resource professionals to communicate is now on the horizon. The use of inexpensive, accessible virtual conference rooms that provide a high-quality "face-to-face" experience between employees as well as outside stakeholders will widely become the "new normal" within two to three years.

Innovators and early adopters take note: The future is now.