Microsoft conference device drives Volvo meetings

RoundTable videoconferencing drives down costs.

Volvo Group's business is all about getting from one place to another. The company sold its car division to Ford Motor in 1999 but is still the world's second-largest manufacturer of heavy trucks. However, employee travel is a financial and environmental burden there, just as it is at any company.

RoundTable, a small videoconferencing device introduced last October by Microsoft, is helping to lift that burden as staff around the world pick it up and take it to meetings anywhere inside or outside their home offices.

RoundTable is a tabletop videoconferencing device with five cameras and six microphones, providing a 360-degree view of a conference room that shows all participants and correctly places their voices. It works with Microsoft's Office Live Meeting platform, which can support video and audio conferences as well as data sharing, and is available as software or as a service. It also adds some functionality to Microsoft's earlier NetMeeting software. RoundTable doesn't deliver the big-screen, high-definition images and high-fidelity audio of systems such as Cisco Systems' TelePresence, but it's portable (less than 7 pounds, or 3.15 kilograms) and costs just US$3,000. Meeting leaders can set it up without a technician, according to Magnus Holmqvist, director of the Volvo IT Innovation Center in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Some Volvo Group employees gather around fixed, room-sized videoconferencing systems for events such as regular meetings and all-day conferences, but a variety of simpler virtual meeting tools reach far more of the company's workers. NetMeeting is used by about 60,000 of Volvo Group's approximately 100,000 employees, Holmqvist said. Those employees hold about 14,000 NetMeeting sessions per month. The company is expanding this number while also migrating to Office Live Meeting, in addition to gradually increasing use of RoundTables.

Avoiding trips helps Volvo realize one of its core values, caring for the environment, Holmqvist said. The Microsoft products are part of a broader collaboration push that involves products from several vendors. In fact, Volvo IT, a wholly owned subsidiary of Volvo Group, has had a special group since 2001 to deliver and support a variety of collaboration tools for Volvo Group employees.

Volvo IT estimates that just the Microsoft collaboration products alone save enough travel to eliminate 900 tons of carbon-dioxide emissions per month, and use of those tools is gradually increasing, Holmqvist said.

Though not everyone at Volvo Group uses RoundTables, Holmqvist said the devices are building a following.

"You get to be addicted to it," he said. "When you don't have it, then you feel like, 'Now I have to run the meeting in a different way.'"

For example, when mechanics who work at truck stops need training on the company's increasingly high-tech engines, Volvo often comes to them instead of the other way around. A training session leader goes out to the truck stop to conduct the training in person and takes a RoundTable along so mechanics or engineers in additional locations can join the session, Holmqvist said. RoundTables are also used in the company's engine development lab in Hagerstown, Maryland. Key employees from around the company can meet virtually with the researchers there to learn more about coming developments in engine technology.

Occasionally, participants in such meetings need to show each other something physical, such as an engine part. But Volvo's engine designs today are created mostly with CAD (computer-aided design) software. The most important thing RoundTable provides is richer human interaction, Holmqvist said. Facial expressions and body language -- including people walking out of the room -- can show a speaker how other participants are reacting or whether they understand the information being discussed.

Volvo's IT department itself uses NetMeeting and RoundTables to stay in close touch with its customers. The organization serves both internal departments at Volvo and the company's first-tier customers, such as vehicle dealers, fleet owners and insurance companies, Holmqvist said.

Virtual meetings are used throughout Volvo Group, and they come naturally to a company that committed itself to helping the environment in 1972, he said. Volvo IT doesn't even have to issue mandates, because employees are willing to go virtual on their own, he said.

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