Consumer products giant Procter & Gamble wants to be the most collaborative company in the world.
That’s a tall order for an US$83 billion company with operations in more than 80 countries. But telepresence — the life-size, high-quality, virtual conferencing capability — is helping to make that goal a reality.
P&G is an early adopter of Cisco’s TelePresence systems, which were unveiled in October 2006. P&G began evaluating telepresence in 2005, however, as a way to foster more collaboration among its far-flung employees.
“We started a journey in IT to provide some modern tools that will enhance collaboration,” says Laurie Heltsley, director of Global Business Services at P&G.
P&G was introduced to telepresence by HP (NYSE: HPQ) and its Halo systems and studios, Heltsley says. But the company didn’t start kicking tires until late 2006/early 2007, after Cisco Systems (NASDAQ: CSCO) entered the game.
“We agreed to do a 90-day sprint” with Cisco, Heltsley says. “We installed four TelePresence units in four locations around the world, captured some business data and made the decision to move forward.”
In October 2007, P&G “put the accelerator down” on telepresence and now has over 40 units installed worldwide in what the company calls video collaboration studios, Heltsley says.
“So it was a fairly long journey and exploration with some different kinds of challenges depending on technology,” she says.
P&G selected Cisco over HP due to speed of deployment, Heltsley says. P&G could turn up more studios in more locations in less time than with the Halo systems, she says. But the Cisco TelePresence systems were not without challenges. The systems require between 9Mbps and 15Mbps of bandwidth.
With a huge and mature Cisco router and switch networks, P&G has scores of Cisco IOS software releases and versions deployed, most of which predate TelePresence. Bringing all of those IOS versions up to speed and then conditioning each link between TelePresence studios was a long and drawn-out process, Heltsley says.
“We had to shake down a few network issues here and there because it is quite network intensive,” she says.
“Most people assume that these technologies are just network capacity constrained or in need of significant network capacity. And while that’s not totally untrue, what we found was that it was more that outside detailed scrubbing of the path between point A and point B to ensure the equipment is up to date, it has the most current level of code. All of those details, down to the wires in the wall and the jacks in the wall, we had to scrub that entire path on a point-to-point basis essentially 43 times. That can be quite tedious. And in the course of doing that you uncover all kinds of little surprises and little nuances.
“It’s not strictly a bandwidth problem or a bandwidth challenge,” Heltsley surmises. “It’s a bit of a capability challenge all the way through the network, from the routers to the switches to the cabling to interface cards and the level of code they’re running. It was a pretty good detailed, tedious process.”
Another challenge was site and room selection for the studios.
“You have to be very, very cognizant of where you’re putting these studios, not only with respect to the network path but with the physical conditions surrounding the technology — that is, if you’re very particular about the experience, which we are,” Heltsley says.
P&G had to consider lighting, sound and noise levels “so that the experience was simply impeccable,” she says.
Taking network capability and site selection into account, P&G has the studio turn-up process down to about 16 weeks or so per studio, Heltsley says. P&G plans to turn up 45 TelePresence studios altogether comprised of Cisco 3000 and 1000 series systems, which cost US$299,000 and US$79,000, respectively.
On average, the worldwide studios are utilized more than four hours in a 10-hour day, or more than 40 per cent. By contrast, the percentage use of traditional videoconferencing by P&G was in the single digits, Heltsley says.
And the experience?
“It’s like being there without leaving here,” Heltsley says. “Most people, in two minutes or less, forget that they’re actually using technology for the conversation.”
Key attributes of telepresence are the technology’s ability to present images in life-size form and to deliver high-quality spatial audio, Heltsley says. It’s what separates presence from videoconferencing, where images are only two inches high and “jerky,” and the audio is only of telephone conferencing quality, she says.
“People underestimate the importance of life-size,” Heltsley says. “It really is the element that makes that conversation feel like it’s happening right here, right now, all in the same room.”
P&G has even thrown a few virtual birthday and retirement parties in its studios for employees in locations across the globe. These events would only occur locally without telepresence, she says.
Ease of use is also a big selling point internally.
“In our case, it’s very much walk in, sit down and start talking,” Heltsley says. “People walk in, sit down, use it and they’re hooked.”
But the real payback is in employee productivity and reduced travel time. Since turning up the studios in October, P&G’s avoided 5,300 trips, Heltsley says — 1,300 in June alone.
And decision making and business processing are much more rapid, she says, because globally dispersed employees can now collaborate at the flip of a switch.
“It’s not only an individual productivity boost but a team and business-process productivity boost,” Heltsley says. “The collaborative piece of it, that’s where we started. But we’re seeing now a very rapid shift of the overall interest and use into business process enabling.”
The next step will be to collaborate with other businesses — suppliers, customers and partners — external to P&G via telepresence, Heltsley says. The company is just now in the initial stages of that but it’s certain to expand, she says.
Cisco and its partners are establishing a broader network of public and private TelePresence studios where companies like P&G will be able to collaborate globally with other companies. Cisco has already signed up service providers AT&Tand Tata Communications, and outsourcer Regusa to help enable that.
“That’s going to be big for us, really expanding our network logically to include public rooms, and other studios and private rooms that have Cisco TelePresence in other companies,” Heltsley says. “B2B is the next frontier for us.”
P&G is also hoping to expand telepresence to other company operations, such as conducting consumer research, she says.
“Being the most collaborative company in the world is an aspiration,” Heltsley says. “This is a contribution toward that.”