Established in 1880 to provide professional qualifications for accountants, the Institute has grown to more than 147,000 members and has 700 employees. Most are based in the UK, either in Milton Keynes to the north of London or in its headquarters near Moorgate in the City of London. It also has offices in Belgium, in several Asian countries, and in Dubai.
Being able to conference internationally was one of the reasons for switching to the new cloud-based conferencing system. The previous system was only available on a UK number, and required users to download a desktop plug-in, which often caused problems. With no end-user support available from the vendor, it was "massively admin-intensive for our technical team to try and sort out these remote problems," says Martin Amos, IT & AV Infrastructure Manager at the ICAEW.
After evaluating various suppliers, the Institute settled on a system from Lifesize, which provided HD cameras for use in its conference rooms as part of the subscription to a cloud-based video and audio conferencing system. The subscription also includes access to online conference sessions without needing to use a dedicated physical room, and remote users can join any meeting from a browser or smartphone. Lifesize has a long list of global dial-in numbers and also offers multilingual local support.
Overall, says Amos, it's "a massively superior system" at almost half the cost of the one it replaces. A good user experience has helped encourage adoption, he says:
People have been using it and encouraging other people to use it and it's picked up its usage a lot.
The system is mainly used for scheduled meetings, often between staff in Milton Keynes and Moorgate, or when holding meetings with external participants. A conference room has been set up at the office in Dubai, too, where several staff report directly to the COO back in the UK. Being able to have meetings internationally, where the participants can see each other without having to travel, has been one of four areas where the system has had the biggest impact.
The ICAEW is itself a member of Chartered Accountants Worldwide, a grouping that brings together 11 similar institutes from countries around the world. It has started using the system to co-ordinate a monthly videoconference meeting, which people connect into from a diverse spread of locations — Australia, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Pakistan, Scotland, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Zambia. The video element greatly improves the experience, says Amos:
[They've said] it's good to see everyone linking up on the screen. So they appreciate having the video element as well as just the voice. It tends to make a difference.
You've got that eye-contact straightaway, and body language is a massive thing, we know that. All those things are not possible on an audio-only call. So people seem to like it a lot better. They really do get a lot from that.
Ad hoc meetings for key people
Directors and some other key people in the business have their own Lifesize login, which allows them to make video calls to other users from their phones, or invite anyone else to join a virtual meeting. Amos explains:
They can invite people into a meeting, or they can dial up a director directly with a video call. They can scroll through the address book and they can see if they're actually online. Then just press a button to connect and talk to them face-to-face.
One executive director was recently working from home for several months and used this system from her iPad to keep in touch with the office. These were often spontaneous meetings rather than anything scheduled, and helped keep in touch during the time she wasn't able to be in the office in person.
Each year, the Institute organizes an awards program called Finance for the Future, which recognizes financial leadership in driving sustainable outcomes. As part the process, there are assessment visits to qualify the entries, and the videoconferencing system has made it possible to accommodate a rising number of international entries, says Amos.
They organize video conference calls with the entrants to basically interview them as part of the awards process. [They've found] it's very user-friendly and the quality of the video and sound is excellent.
The ICAEW Member's department recently completed testing the system for use in webinars, which they deliver using the ON24 webinar service. Dialling in from the Lifesize equipment in a conference room allows the presenters to be visible during the webinar, which adds more character to the material. Amos says:
They recently asked me if we could incorporate Lifesize to bring a video element to the webinar, which we managed to do. It works really well. So they'll use that for the commercial vehicle, and also for training and development.
The usage described here is not on the same scale that we've seen some digital-native businesses achieve, where people routinely switch to a video chat when they discover they need to resolve some issue face-to-face. But the system is proving its worth and adoption is starting to spread.
Earlier this year I spoke to Amy Downs, Chief Customer Success Officer at Lifesize, who explained the company's philosophy of starting small and proving what the system can do — "let’s get in the door. Then let’s go smother them with love." No doubt Lifesize will be helping the Institute do even more with videoconferencing as time goes on, perhaps leading to more radical impact on the way people work.