Not so startling Cisco research on video

A tweet from Dina Mehta via Mark Petrovic pointed me to an article titled The psychology of videoconferencing that refers to some research Cisco recently released. Cisco says:

[research published in 1971] revealed that only seven per cent of our understanding comes from pure words, and that 40 per cent is gleaned from the tone of the voice and 53 per cent from visual cues.

What they fail to note is that all the research has shown that video is not very good at providing those “visual cues” especially more subtle ones.

For many years, videoconferencing technologies have been applied as a substitute for face-to-face meetings. Spending for videoconferencing technology is typically based on a presumed increased productivity or savings due to a presumed reduction in travel. Despite countless deployments and projects deployed over decades, on the whole, the technology has failed to provide these anticipated benefits.

When videoconferencing has failed to meet expectations, it has almost always been attributed to some “other” factors. There seems to be a powerful intuitive desire in people to find something else to blame. I was guilty of this myself, for a long time. We keep telling ourselves some detail of the implementation needs improvement. If we just used a better camera here, a little more bandwidth there, an improved user-interface, one more update of some kind, all will be well.

However, the answer is right there in prior research. We will find that many others before us had fallen into the same trap. And it’s not because these projects were using old hardware. There have been some deployments using absurdly expensive hardware and software that would never be practical in a wide deployment. And even such sophisticated systems could not deliver on the presumed power of videoconferencing technologies to substitute for face-to-face communications. It wasn’t the hardware or network. The most expensive hardware in the world can’t address some of the fundamental limitations of real-time videoconferencing.

The elephant in the room is that even high quality audio and video cannot replicate the rich nature of face-to-face communication. Period.

Further, experience shows that this is very very difficult for people to accept. It is much easier to find something else to blame. We tend to point at problems in the details of the specific implementation rather than accept the reality that real-time videoconferencing is inherently limiting and then work within those limitations.

In Cisco’s paper, they say:

“We observed the value of visual cues in successful meetings, and video technologies that maximise this, such as telepresence, are ideal for maintaining excellent relationships.

“However, individuals who approach meetings with a positive attitude, leaders who understand and support the different personalities and cultures in their teams, and organisations that provide the resources and training to make video communications the norm, are also essential to effective video-enabled meetings.”

So what they’re saying is when the technology doesn’t work, or doesn’t give all the benefits people expect (because it never does), it’s your fault because you failed to “understand and support the different personalities and cultures in your teams.” Nice preemptive scapegoat, Cisco.

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