Swedish government looks to virtual meetings as an environmental (and efficiency) strategy

The Swedish government’s annual instructions to the National Transport Administration now include a mission to support and improve conditions for virtual meetings across the country. The goal is to find practical ways to harness “Green IT” as an efficient travel substitute as well as to provide both more efficient management and reduced environmental impacts. The core proposal is based on a “ten step method” which the Administration released last year to champion and support virtual meetings within an organization. The project behind this strategy is introduced here.  And you are warmly invited to comment and share the fruit of your own experiences.

Implementation of virtual meetings in Swedish organisations
– The challenge of realizing the potential environmental benefits of ICT -

- Peter Arnfalk, IIIEE, Lund University*
– Ulf Pilerot, the Swedish Transport Administration
– Per Schillander, the Swedish Transport Administration

Introduction

Expectations that videoconferencing and other forms of virtual meetings should be able to replace some of the fast-growing volumes of business travel have been expressed for several centuries. The use of virtual meetings has e.g. been highlighted by the Swedish strategy for IT and sustainable development[1] as one of the means to move toward a more sustainable level of transport impacts, particularly promoting the implementation of these work forms in public authorities from 2007 and on. Moreover, several Swedish municipalities[2] have identified virtual meetings as a means to reduce their business travel, and, as part of their mobility management efforts, they promote these forms of meetings internally as well as encouraging local business to do the same.

However, despite the large potential savings in terms of time and money, as well as environmental gains when organisations’ business travel could be replaced by these meetings, these meeting forms has still a quite limited use both in public and private organisations. This paper describes a project – Resfri with the aim to analyse why this is so, and find ways to stimulate an increased use of virtual meetings in Swedish organisations.

Point of departure

The amount of information available in Swedish about virtual meetings has been limited, particularly for organisations wanting to learn more about how to make the organisation start using this type of meetings and what the possible effects are. In-depth information is available in different academic papers and theses, reports and a few books on specific issues, as well as homepages from IT and telecom companies. But collecting and analyzing this information is a task is beyond what most organisations have the resources, time, and willingness to do.

This information and knowledge barrier leads to a number of effects. Despite the technical advancement and availability of tools for collaboration and communication at a distance, lack of knowledge and routines and incentives to use these still prevail. The focus is on the technology and not the users.

Most organisations, in particular small and medium sized companies, lack knowledge of what virtual meetings are and how to make use of them. Those organisations that are interested lack the know-how and resources to find out how to go about, and as a consequence, the initiative stalls. Moreover, companies and authorities that do install virtual meeting technology in their organisation, often do so lacking insight into how they can use of these new meeting forms to optimize their operations from a social, economical and environmental point of view.

The Resfri Project

Identifying this call for information, combined with the need to supplement the mobility management toolbox with tools for work related travel, the Swedish Transport Administration (Vägverket or SRA), in cooperation with other authorities, municipalities, universities, and non-governmental organisations, launched a project called Resfri (Travel-free) in 2005.

The objective has been to develop an independent information and support service for Swedish organisations on Virtual Meetings, i.e. audio-, web-, and videoconferencing.[3] The project is on-going and will be finalised at the end of 2009.

The main goal have been to develop a type of guide to virtual meetings, a web-based service, free of cost, unbiased, bringing up both the challenges and opportunities related to this type of meetings. The information builds on information from literature, expert inputs, interviews with practitioners and a number of case studies. A collection of best-practices are collected and success-factors highlighted.

A ten-step methodology (or check-list) has been developed in support for implementation of successful virtual meetings in an organisation. Nine organisations (called Case Study II organisations or CS II), including state agencies, municipalities, private companies, and NGOs, have tested the methodology and their progress is being monitored.[4] (The information can be accessed via the SRA’s homepage: http://www.trafikverket.se/resfrii)

To maintain an unbiased perspective the service is intentionally kept free from any advertisement or corporate linkages. The companies interviewed do not include the IT or the telecom sectors, again in order to avoid the risk of that the information could be interpreted as biased.

The Resfri project uses the SUMO[5] methodology as a framework for planning and managing the project, and for monitoring its effects.

Implementing Virtual Meetings in Organisations

The methodology developed and used in the Resfri project builds on the basic idea that you need to know why and how people meet before getting the technology, instead of doing the other way around. Although it may sound trivial, the latter case is prevailing. This can also be expressed as that you first need to understand an organisation’s meetings culture and its employees’ collaborative requirements in order to successfully meet these needs, and to be able to build a suitable infrastructure, technical as well as administrative, for virtual meetings.

Based on collected experiences from a number of successful implementation and management of virtual meetings in different organisations, a step-by-step methodology have been developed and employed in the project. The methodology consists of ten steps, and the entry point depends on the organisation’s implementation progress. In is not overly important to go through all the ten steps in the correct order, but rather that a systematic approach is used for the implementation.

The 10-step Resfri methodology

1. Analyze the starting point; travel costs, use of and interest in virtual meetings. A common mistake organisations do is to invest in technical equipment for virtual meetings before asking themselves: What are our needs in terms or meetings, communication and collaboration? Do we want/need to make our meeting culture more efficient? Do we want/need to reduce business travel?

In this first step (a rough estimate of) the following information is collected:

  • The amount of business travel in the organisation
  • Travel expenses[6]
  • Main requirement for effective communication internally and externally
  • If there is a travel policy and, if so, what it says.

This background data can then be used for decision support in the following step.

2. Get top management commitment and sufficient resources for the implementation.

The organisation and its top management need to understand the relevance of the project and to support it. Based on the background data from the first step, a decision can be made to allocate sufficient resources and time for the implementation work. Management should communicate that it sees it as an important effort, and then “walk the talk” and actually start using virtual meetings themselves, acting role models. If this management commitment is lacking, the whole process of developing a new meeting culture is most likely never going to take place, or is doomed to fail.

3. Establish a working group.

Someone who is interested in the technology itself, e.g. a technician, often introduces virtual meeting and installs the technology. As his or her responsibility (and perhaps also interest) is limited to the technical part, there is a risk that the use of the technology bought is limited due to a lack of information, knowledge, routines, etc. Instead, people from different parts of the organisation should be involved already from the start to in order to make employees start using the equipment. This group may include including personnel from e.g. (top) management, human resource, IT and networks, travel administration, environmental management, etc. The group should determine the scope of the venture and set up a timetable and goals.

4. Analyse the organisation’s meetings, communication and collaboration.

In order to choose the technology that best meets the communication requirements of your organisation, an understanding of what is needed and wanted is required. In addition to the rough initial scan, the following questions should be answered:

  • What type and extent of communication and collaboration is wanted and needed?
  • What type of meeting culture prevails in the organisation, and are there reasons to change or develop this culture?
  • Between what places, groups and individuals could virtual meetings help the collaboration?
  • What technologies can be envisaged to use?

5. Map out the organisation’s existing technical infrastructure.

It is important to take stock of the organisation’s (and possibly also other organisations such as customers, suppliers and partners) existing technical infrastructure in terms of:

  • Technical equipment
  • Network
  • Software
  • Subscriptions to services
  • Firewalls
  • Safety
  • Availability of support.

6. Select and acquire appropriate equipment /services.

Now that the collaborative needs and the existing technical infrastructure of the organisation is known, we have the knowledge necessary choose the most suitable equipment and technical infrastructure, tailored to the organisation’s communications needs and conditions. A word of advice is in place here. Select equipment of high quality; the pay-back times are short for virtual meeting equipment that is being used, but insufficient or poor equipment will scare away users and never be paid off!

7. Establish routines and procedures.

  • Establish a meeting policy or develop an existing travel policy into a meeting policy.
  • Connected to the meeting policy there should be guidelines on how and when to use virtual meetings, how to allocate cost, distribute responsibilities and establish routines for support, service and and booking.
  • Set up a system for booking of equipment and any premises.
  • Provide guidelines to employees who often call for meetings, such as managers and project managers, on what type of meeting that is most suitable for different situations.
  • It is important that the management, when convening meetings, routinely use virtual meeting forms. In this way they will catalyze the development of the organisation’s meeting culture.

8. Designate staff responsible for the operation, booking, support, training and monitoring.

The technology does not have to fail many times until you have lost a virtual meeting participant forever. An organisation that wants the workers must be able and willing to use video, web and audio conferencing professionally, must ensure that the technology works. If something, after all, fails anyway, immediate support needs to be available. Particularly for video conferencing systems, it is clearly a plus if the meeting is set up and connected in advance, not to waste valuable time in the beginning. In this way, you can avoid not only the frustration of a meeting being interrupted or delayed, but also creating a feeling of comfort among the meeting participants.

9. Inform and organize teaser and testing events.

In order to get the employees to start using virtual meetings, they first of all need to know that the organisation actually offers these services, where the equipment is located/available, how to make a booking (if needed), and then when and how to use it. Let people get to try out what it is like to participate in a videoconference, or to share documents and chat in a web conference. This should preferably be done at first in an informal situation and not in a professional setting.

10. Follow up and communicate use, progress and savings.

Management should follow up the use of virtual meetings and its implications. By doing so you can adjust and develop these meeting services, and also provide a basis for any additional investments. Information about the use should be spread in the organisation. Moreover, the environmental effects should be identified, monitored and disseminated.

Coaching of the case study II organisations

The Resfri guide, publicly available at SRA’s homepage, is one of the fundamental components in the Resfri project’s efforts to promote an efficient and successful use of virtual meetings in Sweden. However, based on previous experiences from similar efforts, it was understood that just providing information on a homepage would not be sufficient support in assisting organisations through the major change in meeting culture that this requires. In response to this, a set of additional supporting functions was arranged for the participating CS II organisations.

Seminars
A number of internal seminars and workshops with external invited experts in various fields were arranged, as well as a few seminars testing different technologies and software alternatives. The seminars were usually about two hours and took place using audio-, web and video conferencing. In some cases, the project group visited the organisations on-site, presenting the project and consolidating the cooperation between the SRA and the organisation.

Training materials
Training material, technical information, seminar documentation etc. was gathered in a common on-line platform (LUVIT).

Advice and support, information sessions
Individual counselling and support was given to the different CS II organisations. During these interactions tailor-made, specific support was provided. This counselling included both scheduled contacts with the organisations and some “on-demand” support.

Surveys

The pilot groups within each the CS II organisations were surveyed at the start of the project and then again after the implementation process had progressed a period of time, ranging from half a year up to approximately a year (the final survey have not been conducted yet so the results presented here are based on previous surveys and tentative results based on discussions with the project’s organisations). The web-based surveys analyse awareness of, attitudes to, skills in, experiences and actual use of virtual meetings. Moreover, the surveys collect information for evaluating the effects on business travel.

Lessons learned

As this paper is written before the final surveys of the project are made, the impacts in terms of reduced travel or environmental effects will not be covered here. Findings here are based on previous surveys and interviews with project members throughout the project period.

The type of independent, unbiased information provided by Resfri about the pro’s and con’s of different forms of meetings, technologies, policies, administrative setups etc., was highly valued by the participating organisations.

The contract made between the project group and the different CS II organisation helped the organisations’ internal project group to raise the question to managerial level, make the aware of the project and to safeguard sufficient time and resources for the implementation.

The implementation takes time. The first challenge is often to get a commitment from the top management, sometimes being a process that can take months, delaying the start. Then, as the change process involves several parts of the organisation, time is needed to coordinate the interests from these different parts and to find a common pathway. Once this initial momentum is established, technology needs to be in place, as well as a supporting organisation and infrastructure surrounding it. Not until this situation has been obtained, the use of virtual meetings can start to grow and develop, creating a new meeting culture in the organisation.

The issue has a relatively low priority in many organisations, which further slows down the implementation process as other more pressing tasks moves ahead. Unless an active effort of progressing the issue is in place, the implementation process risks to stall. This has also to do with the fact that implementation of virtual meetings lacks some kind of natural “hosting role” within the organisation. The person or persons who gets this responsibility are fully preoccupied with other work tasks, leaving little time for them to engage in the implementation work.

Feedback from the CS II organisations have indicated the usefulness of the different components in the Resfri project.

The Resfri Guide at SRA:s homepage:

  • not used by all
  • seen as useful by those who have used it
  • practical, hands-on information appreciated

The Seminars and Technical testing sessions:

  • “expert seminars” much appreciated by most participants
  • experience sharing between different organisations highly valued
  • Testing of different forms of e.g. web-meetings also well received

Advice and support, information sessions

  • personal contact much appreciated, role as discussion partner
  • ad-hoc and on-demand most valued
  • regular contacts major driver for the internal work

Ten-step Resfri methodology

  • seen as an important guide in the implementation process
  • most organisations used it successfully
  • some used it as a checklist
  • some followed it, but not in the sequence suggested
  • did not suit all organisations, then seen as too complicated

Training materials

  • The organisations who used it found the material to be very useful, providing more specific material than the more general information available on the SRA:s homepage.
  • However, only a few organisations used as it was seen as “too much hassle” to log in. A “one-stop shopping” approach to information was asked for.

A number of success factors were identified throughout the project, in both the case studies. The following factors were pointed out by the Case Study II organisations as the most important ones in their implementation process.

Success factors

  • Actively raising the question: do not take for granted that the technology will “sell itself”, it needs promotion!
  • Developing a new meeting and/or travel policy – this will bring up the issue to the agenda and catalyse the progress for implementation of virtual meetings
  • Firmly establishing the implementation project at managerial level, also in units in other locations.
  • Making sure that your business partners and other external parties have the equipment, software or other technical prerequisites necessary to be able to communicate with you virtually.
  • Selecting and installing user-friendly technology that works well and not fails too often.
  • Identifying appropriate target user-groups within the organisation
  • The management supporting the project; using the technology and communicating it.
  • Having someone who “owns” the issue, promoting it and pushing forward.
  • Education of users: knowing how to use the services and where to find them.

On the other hand, the same group of organisations identified a number of barriers as well.

  • Lack of or poor manuals or user guides
  • Technology working poorly, disconnecting, poor sound and/or picture quality
  • No good methods or routines for measuring and follow-up of the use
  • Lack of incentives and hard to establish new ones
  • Hard to change meeting culture; it is deeply rooted may take a long time to change
  • Many different manufacturers with solutions incompatible with other manufacturers/programmes/technologies
  • If an organisation has gotten used to use one type of virtual meeting, they are unwilling to use other ones.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Based on the experiences and tentative results in the project, the following summoning conclusions can be made.

Interactive project has great potential
The interactive approach used in the Resfri project, managing and developing the project in conjunction with the organisations involved, have helped the project to focus on the most critical factors, thus providing benefit for all parties. The level of advancement in respect of virtual meetings use and implementation have varied among the CS II organisations, but they have nevertheless benefited from the project.

Organization’s own driving force is a key factor
As in many other organisational change processes, the organisation’s own engagement and momentum is critical to success. Appropriate technology, enthusiasts, providing incentives, etc. play a minor role on the organisation unless the top management does not see the usefulness of virtual meetings.

The project results clearly confirm that the ones who have realised the usefulness of virtual meetings for their organisation, are also those who work most effectively and successfully.

Changing meeting culture is a process that takes time
The project had an overly tight timetable, which once again suggests that each organisation (and individual) must be allowed to start where they currently are. Many projects have witnessed that this type of change process takes 4-7 years, sometimes faster in private firms. Thus, this type of project must be log-term commitments, or designed for either a group of organisation being at the same level of development, or, as in this case, be prepared to adapt its support to the varying needs from the different organisations.

Routines and calculation models needed

If the effects of an increased use of virtual meetings should be monitored and communicated, standard routines for such monitoring needs to be in place, making the measurements understandable, comparable and reliable. These can favourably be linked to existing systems and routines, e.g. the ISO 14001 environmental management system. Particularly, generally accepted models for estimating the substitution of business travel needs to be in place, making it possible to calculate CO2 reductions.

Incentives for individuals needed

Organisations can gain largely, in terms of efficiency, time and money, if their employees would use virtual meetings to a larger extent. However, incentives for individual employees are missing and the use of available technology is therefore limited, as the efforts needed to start using a new meeting form and the time it takes are seldom promoted or supported. Thus, incentive schemes need to be in place to accelerate the change process. When employees are able to take part of the economic gains from reducing business travel in the organisation, this has proven to strongly support this development. Taxation policies should promote, not demote, such efforts.


*Contact addresses: E-mail: peter.arnfalk@iiiee.lu.se, Postal address: The International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics, Lund University, P.O Box 196, 221 00 LUND, Sweden.

[1] Ett miljöanpassat informationssamhälle år 2020! The Swedish IT Policy Strategy Group; Ministry of Industry and Trade, October, 2006.

[2] E.g. Stockholm, Gotenburg, Malmö and Lund.

[3] By virtual meetings we understand meetings at a distance in real time with the help of technology, such as telephone and video conferencing and web conferencing (Internet-based meetings using a computer or other internet-based user interface). Audio conferences include meetings with the help of multi-party talks and / or conference phone, via fixed or mobile communications. Videoconferencing technology offers a range of video in mobile phones, video phones to well-equipped studios with multiple monitors, cameras and other equipment connected to support. There are many different types of web conferencing, but some common features are IP-based video and voice communications, the ability to slide presentation, file sharing and instant messaging.

[4] CS II organisations include the cities of Gothenburg and Malmö, Lund and Umeå’s municipalities, Norrbotten County Association of Municipalities, Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKL), the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden, Logica and the Swedish Road Administration.

[5] SUMO – System för Utvärdering av Mobilitetsprojekt (Systems for evaluation of mobility projects); Vägverkets Publikation 2004:98, a tool for planning, evaluation and management of a mobility management projects. This tool is increasingly being used by the Swedish Road Administration to facilitate improved routines to follow-up on the effects of different mobility management projects. More useful for the international public from MaxSumo of EPOMM at http://www.epomm.eu/index.phtml?ID1=2359&id=2359 .

[6] A question that is commonly raised before a decision to invest in virtual meetings is taken, is what the cost of business travel is in the organisation and to what extent virtual meetings are able to reduce this cost. A rule of thumb for the economic calculation is to double the direct travel costs, to include, inter alia, the travel administration and the travel time. If we then estimate that about 20 percent of travel is replaced with virtual meetings, it is possible to get an approximate figure of the investment in technology and support.

# # #

Paper originally presented at the ICT-ENSURE and Club of Rome workshop on “ICT and Climate Change” in Stockholm November 16, 2009. Latest additional information on the project is being prepared in English. Please contact  Per Schillander  if you need a copy more quickly — per.schillander@trafikverket.se

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