The most remarkable thing about meeting with Carlos Dominguez, Senior Vice President at Cisco Systems, was how we met. I was in Galway, Ireland and Carlos was in New Jersey in the United States, but it felt as though he was sitting across the table from me.
The technology we used for this meeting was called Telepresence. The experience was overwhelmingly real but at the same time so natural and unobtrusive that minutes into the interview I had quite forgotten that we were, in reality, separated by thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean. At one point I became concerned that should I jog the table I might knock over a coffee cup (visible in the picture above) which Carlos had placed close to his computer. There was nothing to fear as the cup was empty but the feeling that I could have a direct physical effect on someone else in another country remained.
Cisco has over 900 of these Telepresence sites across its network and they are starting to appear in locations where members of the public can have better access to the technology. The JW Marriott Grand Marquis has recently opened a Telepresence site in its hotel in Miami which it rents out by the hour. A major advantage of Telepresence technology is that it saves travel time, airfares and room rates – which for a team of people can mount up very quickly. It also saves on travel induced stress.
This is something Carlos knows about from personal experience, “If I go back to 2006. I travelled almost a million miles on airlines and if you do the calculation that’s almost traveling every single day for 365 days. Some days I traveled more than once. It took a tremendous toll on me.
“In 2010, I’m traveling 70,000 miles maybe 75,000 miles but here’s the punchline; I am seeing two to three times more customers and it’s the technology that’s enabling it.
“The question that comes out all the time is, “Oh, well, but nothing replaces a face to face meeting.” Well, true, it’s great to see you to shake your hand or maybe we’ll get a cup of coffee, a dinner, a lunch or maybe a glass of wine or a beer… and nothing replaces that bonding. But the experience of doing [Telepresence] is very, very different.”
Video and video-conferencing are not exactly new technologies so we asked Carlos what had changed?
“As a young man I remember going to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York and AT&T had the Picturephone. A telephone that had video on it. I remember being amazed and that was fifty plus years ago that they demonstrated that technology. In the eighties there was video-conferencing everywhere but the challenges there was that the quality of the video wasn’t very good. It was very hard to operate. You needed a whole staff of people to do it. People were zooming in and out, the quality of the audio was horrible. It was horrific.
“So when we set out to design this we said, “What are all things about video[-conferencing] that we dislike and how do we change it?”
“We took all the bad things away. We have super high quality video. We’ve taken into consideration the lighting, the colour… We spent months just analyzing the colour of the wood so it gives you a very natural reflection. We went to Hollywood to work with designers and lighting designers to make it all very simple.
“But I think the reason why it is so powerful has to do with physiology. We had body language before we had language. I spend time with people, coaching them, and I know exactly what they are thinking. I can see every little part of your face so I know if you are connecting with me or you are not. Those are the things that I think are really transformational in the way we are doing this and why this technology is so powerful.”
Telepresence is scaled for different price points with different unit sizes and is available for different budgets and different needs. There is even a Telepresence system for the home called Umi which is being rolled out in the US at present but should be arriving on European shores soon.
A very useful facility that Umi has is the ability to email you when a video voicemail has arrived. All you have to have with you is the ability to run Google Video. You can check your video message while in a cafe or a bar or while in transit.
“It’s all about video.” Carlos says, “In order to collaborate you have to have the underlying technologies to collaborate with and I think video is one of the really strong enablers that allows that to happen. Now we see dramatic changes inside the company on how we do things by leveraging video and cooperating differently.
Cisco also has a service called WebEx Connect which gives you the ability to have online meetings where you can share your presentation via a small video window.
“Cooperation is the killer app.” Carlos explains, “One of the challenges right now for Social Media is when you are talking about Facebook and Twitter and large corporations. Last number I read is that 54% of Fortune 500 companies block Facebook and Twitter. It’s alarming to me that such a powerful tool is not being embraced. But I hope that with technologies like Quad we can bring them into businesses and show them that there is extreme power in doing it.
“We’ve been using a lot of social media technology…If you look at the power of Social Media and those technologies and what it allows you to do – to be able to share and to be able to communicate with people – they are better tools than most enterprises have. Most enterprises are very reliant on email. Email is very antiquated. 90% of email is spam.
“So, what we started thinking about three years ago is, “How do we leverage the power of Social Media and bring it into the enterprise where it is safe and secure. And also put on some bells and whistles which are very pertinent to a business user.””
Cisco Quad is an internal social media service that allows for collaboration within a corporate structure. It was developed by an R&D team led by Mike Conroy working out of Galway, Ireland. We plan to devote a subsequent article to talking to Mike and finding out more about how Quad works.
In the final part of the interview we asked Carlos about his views on future developments.
“Technologies allow a vast majority of people to really collaborate on something. The more diverse a group of people that are collaborating is; by age, where they live, religion, culture; the more varied those dimensions are – the better the group is at solving complex problems.
“Information evolves with the tools as one person sees it and someone else from a different background sees something else. That information, every time it goes through a person with a different background becomes more and more valuable.
“The pace of change is going to accelerate. I think in a world that is moving so fast I think embracing change is very, very important and I think experimenting is very, very important.
“I talk to a lot of CEOs and really senior people and they always ask me, “How do I keep up with everything? What do I do?” I always tell them you have to experiment. You have to set up a culture that is constantly trying all these things.
“When you experiment you learn what works and what doesn’t. And when you learn you eventually get to Utopia which is [where] you get leveraging.”
It’s a four step process:
- You embrace change
- Learn from the experiment
“You can’t get the leverage unless you go through the process. In a world that is changing rapidly you have to start being open to all the things that are going on.
“The good news is that as technology gets more and more sophisticated it will get much easier to use. The technology will learn how we operate.”