Defining and Purchasing Conferencing Solutions: Work in the Time of Corona

In the first blog on this series on conferencing, Amalgam Insights discussed top conferencing vendors and their Coronavirus-specific free offerings to support remote work. In this second of four blogs focused on conferencing solutions, Amalgam Insights describes top considerations for enterprises as they formalize their conferencing investments in the Time of Corona.

This four-part blog series on Conferencing Solutions includes the following topics:
Part I: Introduction to Conferencing Solutions
Part II: Defining and Purchasing Conferencing Solutions
Part III: Evaluating Conferencing Solutions
Part IV: Recommendations for Effective Conferencing

Key Stakeholders: Chief Executive Officer, Chief Information Officer, Network Services Directors and Managers, Telecom Directors and Managers, IT Directors and Managers

Why It Matters: In the Time of Corona, Amalgam Insights estimates that the United States workforce working from home has increased from 5% at the end of 2019 to over 30% as of the end of March 2020. In light of this fundamental shift, companies must choose, deploy, and administer conferencing solutions effectively to support remote workers and maintain collaboration-based productivity.

Top Takeaway: Conferencing is a core capability to support teamwork, collaboration, and face-to-face interaction in remote work settings. By understanding the features, pricing, and best practices associated with supporting conferencing solutions at scale, companies can evaluate and implement conferencing solutions at scale to support business continuity and remote teams in the Time of Corona.

Defining the Enterprise-Grade Conferencing Platform

A complete enterprise-grade conferencing platform enables aural, visual and text-based collaboration among groups and individuals through phone lines, the internet and/or camera-enabled devices. That way, employees can meet virtually from wherever they work, including mobile devices, computers, and media-enabled monitors or rooms. Employees can stay connected through their choice of smartphone, tablet, modern laptop or desktop, custom home office or work office, and a high-quality broadband connection.

Note that almost all modern solutions targeting businesses feature audio, video and chat and/or instant messaging. Any conferencing solutions considered that lack all three modes of communication should either be high-end specialist solutions or have some additional vertical or functional specialization above and beyond what is typically provided by conferencing solutions, such as sales enablement, sourcing and contract management, or governed and compliant functionality for government and other high-security use cases. In the age of COVID-19 and future disasters, audio, video and text all are essential to fostering a cohesive team environment.

A final note here: When sifting through the dozens of available solutions, it may be helpful to consider what conferencing is not – and that is fairly straightforward. To that point, enterprise-grade conferencing is not:

• Messaging-only
• File sharing (although conferencing may include this capability)
• Client/community management (à la Salesforce Community Cloud)
• Social media (although conferencing may support channels that resemble social media feeds such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter)
• Learning management systems (e.g., Skillsoft, CrossKnowledge, Area9)
• Virtual events (which have additional event management, contact management, presentation, and audience participation capabilities)
• Webinars (which focus mainly on mass one-way communications with limited two-way interaction through Question and Answer panels or promoting individual users to presenters)

How Do I Buy Conferencing?

In many cases, enterprises purchase conferencing platforms on a standalone basis – separately, not as part of other applications. It is quite common for employees decide to purchase conferencing solutions either for personal use or as a minor line item expense hidden in a project or discretionary spend, resulting in a panoply of solutions within any one organization. Employees launch the platform from a web link or mobile application when needed. Over the past 20+ years that conferencing has been part of the corporate tool kit, a constant challenge has been the inability to start meetings on time or to support the types of meetings that employees would like to have. As a result, employees place a premium on conferencing solutions that work rather than simply using the conferencing solutions mandated within a corporate environment.

By that same token, of course, conferencing can be embedded within other products. Those larger solutions fall outside the scope of this research but, for now, it is sufficient to understand that conferencing acts as one facet of a multi-pronged approach to remote communications.

Licensing Concerns

Enterprises purchase rights to a certain number of conferencing seats, usually for a specific contract length. For this reason alone, it is imperative to select a platform that staff will actually adopt before investing in a product at scale. If the conferencing product is confusing or overloaded with features, people will resort to other methods to meet. The organization then will pay for something it’s not using – and that is a luxury enterprises can ill afford amid COVID-19.

Most cloud-based conferencing vendors will enable clients to add and remove licenses as staffing fluctuates. Depending on the provider, there may be a fee for this convenience. If the conferencing solution is premise-based, the client (or its technology partner) will have to install or uninstall programs manually, device by device. This may not be feasible, depending on the employee’s geographic location. Companies choosing solutions that are difficult to remove or solutions that make it difficult to track usage and define which employee is responsible for an account find themselves at risk of managing “zombie” accounts that maintain their monthly cost, but are assigned to employees that have left the company or projects that are no longer being held.

What Differentiates Conferencing Platforms from a Purchasing Perspective?

Voice plan charges. Who knew minutes still cost money? Well, they do, especially for toll-free numbers. Analyze each vendor’s fine print when it comes to the audio side of the conferencing platform for toll and toll-free minutes and to see which countries are supported with phone numbers. (Pro Tip: In the IP age of communications, computer-based calls can often be both cheaper and higher quality than using a phone.)

Number of users/time supported. Free platforms usually accommodate the fewest seats and minutes per conference. This may pose no challenge for a very small business, but medium and larger organizations require more extensive capabilities. (Pro Tip: Sometimes less is more. Freemium limits may provide an opportunity to reduce meeting attendees to the most relevant stakeholders and to limit meeting times.)

Devices/brand names supported. Despite the popularity of open-source technology, not all platforms and features may work on specific mobile devices or operating systems, whether it be Android, iOS, AppleOS, Windows, Linux, or other options. Doublecheck interoperability and minimum computing requirements for key features during the procurement phase.

Pricing. Depending on the premium nature of the vendor’s brand, as well as number of users, features, level of support, and other considerations, platform pricing varies, even within the provider’s product portfolio. Check whether there are annual discounts, bulk user discounts, minimum annual revenue commitments, pricing changes for transferring licenses across users, and other standard technology pricing concerns when buying in bulk. (Pro Tip: Amalgam Insights provides consulting services for companies seeking to conduct due pricing diligence.)

In our next blog, Part III: Evaluating Conferencing Solutions, we will cover functional considerations in comparing conferencing solutions in the Time of Corona.

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