How many old-fashioned telephone conference calls have you participated in this month?
You know these calls. You first dial in a number. Then you hit a huge string of random numbers to be placed in the correct call. Then you announce yourself. Then you hear a loud beep. If you are lucky, the “conference organizer” has entered in the correct host code.
You have no idea who is on the other end of the call - and talking over each other and being accidentally on mute are all part of the conference call experience.
Contrast the experience of a conference call with that of Skype, Google Hangouts, Adobe Connect, WebEx, Zoom, Fuze, AnyMeeting, BlueJeans, GoToMeeting, Join.me, etc. etc. (what am I missing?).
These web conferencing systems (many of them free) allow us to see each other with our webcams, use our computers for audio, chat, share our screens, take notes, and much else.
Web conferencing has progresses to a point where the platforms are stable and the features are easy to use. Bandwidth has improved to a point where almost all web conferences have good audio and video. Increasingly, web conferences are initiated and held using mobile devices - so it is not necessary to be at a computer (or on WiFi) to have a web meeting.
So why is it then that we persist in having telephone conference calls?
Why hasn’t web conferencing eliminated the need for telephone conferencing?
Theory 1 - Change Is Hard:
Many of us are simply more comfortable with the telephone conference call. We have been doing our distributed group meetings and on-the-fly group meetings with our conference call numbers, and we see no reason to change.
Theory 2 - Reliability and Simplicity:
A telephone conference call may be low-tech, but it works. The audio on our telephones is consistent, and usually of good quality. Holding a group discussion with an online platform means dealing with microphones that don’t work, webcams that don’t start, and computers that crash. We prize simplicity and reliability over most things when it comes to our communications.
Theory 3 - The Group In the Room:
Most of our conference calls involve setups where a group of people are in a single room, and everyone else is somewhere else. The group in the room sits around the conference phone. Web meetings only really work if everyone is on the web meeting. Setting up a single computer in a room for the web conference almost never works. The audio doesn’t capture everyone. The field of view for the webcam is too small. And it seems weird to make people who gather in a single room all go on the web meeting - not to mention audio problems with this approach.
Theory 4 - Too Many Choices:
How many different web conferencing systems are used on your campus? There are Skype calls, and WebEx calls, and Google Hangouts calls, Blue Jeans meetings, and Adobe Connect Calls - and who knows what else going in your organization. Colleges and universities may be particularly bad at standardizing on a single platform. And people have their strong preferences about the web meeting platform that they prefer. All this choice in platforms may be causing people to choose none, as they don’t know which to choose.
Theory 5 - Mobile:
All the web conferencing platforms talk about their mobile options. From what I have observed, however, most people will choose their desktop web conferencing system when given a choice. Mobile web conferencing may work fine, but if it is not used then people will not be comfortable using the apps.
Theory 6 - FaceTime:
Apple’s FaceTime is a simple, reliable, and elegant web call solution. But only for those in the Apple ecosystem. And only if you want to talk to one person at a time. My guess is that many people use FaceTime instead of web conferencing tools that are cross-platform and can support multiple people. The lack of practice and familiarity with web conferencing systems means that using one of these platforms for work is not top-of-mind.
Theory 7 - Multitasking:
It may be that people like old-fashioned telephone conferences because we don’t want to give our full attention to the call. We want to check e-mail, surf the web, and work on that PowerPoint - while also talking on the phone. Web conferencing systems make multitasking more challenging, as people can see what we are doing (webcams), and the screen real estate is often taken with presentations and chat. Web conferencing may lead to more focused and productive meetings, as everyone knows that multitasking is a myth.
What are your theories on the persistence of the telephone conference call?
How do you hold your meetings when everyone in the meeting is not in the same room?