THE VIRTUAL MEETING MAKES SHARING DOCUMENTS EASIER


Remember the days when everyone worked together at the same time in the same office? "Document sharing" was easy -- a group of people would sit around a conference table and all look at a photocopy of the memo, report, or spreadsheet in question. It was done in "real time," and the relevant technology was a pen or pencil. Times have changed, and as PR agencies and corporations expand nationally and internationally, one of the greatest challenges for telecommuting, mobile and satellite office communication is to replicate that conference-table environment. Many international PR agencies, such as Burston-Marsteller, have been using video conferencing for years. Yet the need isn't as much to see the other peoples' faces as it is to see the document and be able to exchange ideas instantaneously. Many companies are moving toward using the World Wide Web to hold meetings. Some bring their clients into the virtual boardroom by giving them access to their internal communications system, or intranets. "With our clients, we share information with them directly on our intranet," said Peter Heimler, vice-president of media relations at Burson-Marsteller in New York. "It gives us a fluid relationship like a [traditional] meeting." One of the latest ways to make better use of the Internet is as a document-sharing medium, so several people can look at the same information available to let dispersed workers view and work on the same document from many locations. (See box below) This is just the start of what promises to be a long list of ways to actively use the Internet as something other than an information resource. One company has pushed the envelope. Verifone Inc., a Redwood City, Calif.-based producer of credit-card validation networks, has operations scattered among more than 30 offices and plants on five continents. Its people communicate mainly through the company's computer network. There aren't any secretaries, because e-mail and voice mail render them virtually unnecessary. People from all over the world gather for Verifone's virtual meetings. As many as 21 different offices can dial into a teleconference, and decisions that emerge are implemented worldwide without delay. Verifone employees also use the computer network to review company spreadsheets, strategic plans, legal documents, marketing plans and press releases. They also are encouraged to e-mail colleagues helpul comments. Lloyd Mahaffey, Verifone's vice president of marketing, said the virtual conference system has proved a lifesaver for his employees. "One of our sales representatives visited a prospective customer in Italy, and was asked a question he couldn't answer about how one of our products could suit the customer's needs," Mahaffey said. "Back in his hotel room he turned on his notebook computer and put the query on our network. He got eight responses and we won the business. The person who sent the most helpful message was sitting in Japan." As telecommuters become more computer literate, they will require --and demand --more and better telecomputing services, such as multipoint interactive application-sharing. Think of it as a telephone conference call with computers: 1. A widely dispersed virtual team of telecommuter connect as they normally would for an audio (or even video) conference call. 2. Simultaneously, they link their computers into specialized network software that allows them all to see the same thing at the same time on their individual computer screens. 3. Then they get busy -collaborating in real time their project by sharing the same application program (WordPerfect. Excel or PowerPoint, for instance) to revise, modify or edit a common document such as a press release. 4. Anyone can be given control of the application (one at a time, please) -even if the application software is not on a team member's own computer.

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