Building the hybrid workplace requires technology integrators to pay more attention than ever to human behaviour. Canada’s ET Group is using the principles of design thinking to make empathy central to the development process.
In a world where technology is always evolving, it’s so easy to get distracted by all the bells and whistles, and forget about what actually matters: the user.
This is a huge problem, especially when it comes to creating hybrid workplaces, because when human behaviour is not taken into account, there will be more problems created rather than solved.
However, we are able to avoid this problem by using design thinking. And a crucial element of design thinking is empathy. Empathy allows us to focus on the human experience, and really understand the true needs and desires of the user; even some they weren’t aware they had. Through walking in their shoes, we see the problem from as many perspectives as possible. We are able to identify all of the gaps and explore many different approaches to finding the long-term hybrid workplace solution.
That’s not to say that it’s always an easy process. The idea of a deep discovery phase can be off-putting for some clients. They assume that it’s going to be too time consuming. But that’s actually not the case. By taking the time to listen to an organization’s story, we get to the best solution much faster than if we had simply installed whatever tech is new or trendy. Plus inviting clients to be so involved allows for deeper and more trusting relationships, because they feel truly seen and understood.
Discover more reasons why empathy matters every step of the way when using design thinking, and how it opens the door for more creative and inclusive solutions by reading our latest interview with WORKTECH Academy here.
ET Group is a Corporate Member of WORKTECH Academy. This article is the third in a series on the role of design thinking in technology integration for the hybrid workplace. Read the first two articles here and here.
Technology integrators and interior designers need to work closely to create the hybrid workplace, but too often there is a divide. ET Group is using the principles of design thinking to build bridges – is this a blueprint for collaboration?
Where designing hybrid workspaces is concerned, technology is to design as music is to dancing. You can’t have one without the other. Sure, you can separate them, but paired together they’re just so much better.
Include technology early in the design process
In order to create successful hybrid strategies, companies need to think about space and technology collaboratively, not as separate design phases with different desired outcomes. Too often, organizations are leaving technology decisions to be made at the end of the design process, and they are missing out on opportunities to optimize these choices to suit all of their employees’ needs. By taking a human-centered approach, Design Thinking creates the right foundation for the ultimate partnership between interior designers and technology integrators.
Lead as co-experts
This is why it’s important to think of designers and technology integrators as co-experts, and give them the opportunities to collaborate with each other as early as possible. Design Thinking allows for a process that allows both parties to collaborate and build on each others different areas of expertise where best suited, in order to co-create the ideal hybrid workspace for the client. As our CEO Dirk Propfe explained to WORKTECH Academy, “We need to jump into each other’s swim lanes to learn together”.
5 key principles to a succesful relationship
At ET Group there are 5 big things we often think about when working with designers in order to guarantee a successful outcome:
1. Define what success looks like. 2. Agree on the process. 3. Focus on experience, not just appearance. 4. Prototype together early and often. 5. Keep it simple.
You can read about these 5 big things in more detail, as well as the rest of our interview with WORKTECH Academy here, and understand why we believe Design Thinking will help achieve better collaboration between design and technology.
ET Group is a Corporate Member of WORKTECH Academy. This article is the second in a series on the role of design thinking in technology integration for the hybrid workplace. Read the first article here.
When it comes to the topic of moving to a hybrid workplace, it’s clear that the key to making it happen is through technology. One of the biggest challenges companies experience today is how to integrate technology successfully into their current systems and processes. Is design thinking the answer?
As companies look to quickly adopt new solutions to enable their hybrid workforce, organizations are struggling to find harmony between the technology tools themselves and the people driving the organization forward. Without a people-centric perspective, companies lack the right balance that is needed to find success to the hybrid workplace.
Could it be that a new approach is required to unlock technology integration in the hybrid workplace?
For the last several years we have been pioneering an approach known as Design Thinking with our global clients and experiencing huge success. Design Thinking is a human-centric approach that seeks to put people at the center of the solution they are creating for and develop solutions with the user in mind. Design thinking really hones in on the process of discovering and defining every aspect of your business, and looking at it all from every possible perspective. We want to know who your people are, what they do, and why they do it.
We sat down with WORKTECH Academy and explained our approach on the principles of Design Thinking and why it helps integrate technology successfully in the hybrid workplace.
Everyone wants to work at a place where they feel valued. Where you have the freedom and power to make real change. Where you feel like you have a voice and a purpose. At ET Group, these are only a few of the reasons why our employees love coming to work everyday, and are the driving force behind one of our greatest achievements.
By Ciara Williams, ET Group
In December, 2021, ET Group President and CEO Dirk Propfe traveled to Las Vegas to attend the Inaugural Tony Hsieh Award gathering, and accepted the Tony Hsieh Award on behalf of our organization. The award, presented by the Greenlight Giving Foundation & Keith Ferrazzi, honors the life of the late Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh and the ways that he continues to inspire organizations to be innovative, authentic, and create better ways of fostering connection. Tony believed that there was always room for improvement and that above all else, people come first.
For ET Group, it is an extreme honor to receive this award, and to be seen for all of the hard work and dedication that was put into transforming our ways of working to be more empowering, inclusive and ultimately life-giving.
While accepting the award, Dirk gave an emotional and eye-opening talk about all of the ways ET Group stands out, and why our way of working is not only different, but essential to our success.
You can watch his talk here:
Dirk begins by telling a personal story about the two life changing experiences that inspired him to transform ET Group into what it is today.
A stark awakening in the Galapagos Islands
The first experience details his time visiting the Galapagos Islands, where he witnessed a lot of awe and beauty, being surrounded by so much life. But there was also a lot of ugliness. At the time, he was developing a deep interest in topics such as sustainability and climate change, and while in the Galapagos Islands, he couldn’t help but notice the litter and environmental abuse that could only have been caused by us as human beings.
He became painfully aware that the world is all interconnected, and that we need to pay attention to how we as a species are affecting the broader ecosystem that others call home, too.
However, rather than letting the ugliness bring him down, he chose to find inspiration in its place. Instead of wallowing in despair at the destruction of this beautiful ecosystem, he asked himself “how can I best contribute to creating a more life-giving world?”
This one question led him down a path of introspection and discovery. and he found himself soon embarking on another adventure: Sweden
Schooled in sustainability
Dirk enrolled in the Master’s Programme in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability at the Blekinge Tekniska Högskola school in Sweden, with the intention of discovering how to create more viable ways of working and living. While attending this program, he was able to learn and unlearn many things about himself and others as human beings. He cherishes the opportunities he had to learn about and experience different ways of being and working that “truly energized and amazed [him].”
For example, while visiting a company in London during his thesis research, instead of simply observing them like he had planned, he was warmly invited to participate and collaborate in a strategy session. He felt seen and heard, like his voice mattered. He truly valued the opportunity to learn something that was never taught in business school, or any other organization that he had been to before, which is that:
“We can all come together, co-create and be part owners of what we’re going to bring out in the world.”
This was the feeling that he held onto when he returned to ET Group and began laying the foundation to create what is now a life-giving environment that our team thrives in.
But what was the reason?
In 2016, Dirk saw ET Group as what could only be called a toxic workplace. We were your typical corporation that harvested an unhealthy and unsustainable working environment. There was in-fighting, debt and extreme egos everywhere. Decisions were made in a hierarchical fashion and for many of our employees, working at ET Group was just a job. A job that was losing people rapidly.
Dirk knew things had to change fundamentally, or else see ET Group disappear.
When he came back to work, he was ready to make those changes. And it started with asking one very important question:
“How can we create a more life-giving organization?”
This means that everyone on our team is self-managed, as well as credited and compensated for their hard work, not just the leadership roles.
Because there are no “leadership roles”. That was made very clear by Dirk, who, even though he has the title of CEO, made sure that this fundamental shift in the company was supported by everyone, using what became ET Group’s Generative Decision-Making Process.
These examples are only a small snippet of the long list of key practices that ET Group has committed to, in order to keep ourselves in line with our human-centric way of life. You can find the rest of our organization’s cultural practices, toolkits and values in our handbook.
ET Group developed 3 fundamental practices to create a more life giving organization: self-organizing around purpose, self-set salaries and distributed ownership and safe space practices.
1. Self-organizing around purpose
Dirk’s first move was to get rid of the traditional hierarchy model. Having owners, managers, or “senior” staff creates inequality, making people feel like their opinions don’t matter.
Now at ET Group, we have self-organizing and self-managing teams (or circles). Our teams are created and organized around how they each contribute to ET Group’s overall purpose: to bring Harmony to Work and Workplace with Technology. In line with Holacracy, each team makes our own decisions regarding how we are best able to meet this purpose, without having to wait for C-Suite approval. Every team member has equal say in what goes, and has equal opportunity to share ideas or concerns.
This freedom allows us to spend less time competing with each other, so we can be more productive and collaborative while ensuring that our clients are getting everything they need and more, because that’s why we’re here.
2. Self-set salaries and distributed ownership
One of the most unique aspects of working at ET Group is our self-set salaries and distributed ownership. In the past, ET Group was owned and governed by only 3 individuals. Today, the company is owned by 70% of our team members.
But owner or not, who is anyone else but you to say how much you and your contributions are worth? When compensation is directly tied to the value and contributions an individual makes to an organization, you begin to see a drastic evolution in the responsibility and ownership that they feel towards the company. As Dirk says, “you have agency for your own life, and we respect that.” This is why we have implemented self-set salaries to encourage personal growth among our employees and let them know that we do see that value in them.
We take pride in the things that we own, and there is an abundance of pride at ET Group; in ourselves as individuals, in each other and in our work.
3. Creating safe spaces for everyone
At ET Group, we don’t hire roles, we hire people.
For this reason, we encourage our team members to bring their whole selves to work, not just their work selves. We don’t believe in hanging up your uniform (metaphorically or otherwise) at the end of the day. When you leave behind parts of who you are under the guise of “professionalism”, you leave behind creative ideas, lack energy and miss out on opportunities to make real connections, which is already challenging in an increasingly hybrid world.
We recognize that everyone is unique, and it’s because of all of the different personalities, perspectives and talents within our team that we are able to thrive at what we do. Sometimes that means that some of our people hold more than one role, because we don’t believe in restricting ourselves.
When we say that our people are our greatest asset, we mean it. Which means taking care of each other. For example, our human-centered way of life means checking in with each other – really checking in with each other – at the beginning and end of every meeting. If someone is having an off day, we want to know so we can empathize and proceed accordingly. We don’t move on until everyone gets to say how they feel, or what they need.
Our Team Connects allow everyone to take part in companywide decisions, and anyone can bring anything to the table. No secrets or hidden agendas.
Too good to be true?
It probably sounds that way, but it really works! Our Employee Net Promoter Score is always over 50 points, and our retention rate is 95%. At ET Group, our team members want to work, so it makes sense that today, our profitability is 2.5x the industry standard, allowing us to have 4x the growth we had in 2016.
The results speak for themselves. As Dirk says:
“This story we’ve been telling ourselves on what it means to be human wants to be retold; life is not about how I can succeed or be better than others. It is about seeing and appreciating each other as wonderful beings with different gifts, talents, and dreams. It is about being in service of each other, and life itself to create beautiful things together. As a collective, it is imperative we shift the narrative and realize what makes us truly happy and fulfilled is to be in service of each other and the planet as a whole.”
There is always more to the story
Becoming who we are today was a necessary and conscious change, and not an easy one at that. It required – and still requires – being always open to trying new things. Sometimes those things fail, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve failed, it just means that we’ve learned, and only become better for it.
“Every day, we put conscious effort into challenging ourselves to make systematic, consistent change. That requires effort every day. Every day requires navigation towards what you feel is the right thing to do, versus our cultural autopilot. It requires steeping yourself in the practice of evolution.”
All of this is just a sneak peak of what it’s like to work at ET Group. To hear the full story, check out Dirk’s full speech for more details about why we love our organization!
We also encourage you to visit our ETG Way Handbook and learn about more of ET Group’s innovative and forward-thinking practices.
And before you go, ask yourself:
How can YOU create more life-giving ways of working?
In 2021, technology is not only fundamentally changing how industries function, but also the ecosystems they are a part of, in no small part due to the global pandemic. An organization can choose the degree to which they will embrace the purposeful evolution of their ecosystem in uncertain times. The organizations with the strongest embrace will see the other side while also leading the innovation of their industry. Such innovation is the domain of teams of highly collaborative teams versus the great insight of an individual innovator.
Transforming a Traditional Ecosystem
The Justice system is a traditional ecosystem with hardened processes (laws are about as hardened a process as you can get) and well-established training initiatives. Is it possible to apply new technology tools to realize drastic benefits?
The opportunity to improve communication lies in the application of technology, precisely because the processes are hardened and the training is well-ingrained into the traditional culture of Justice systems, wherever you look.
With this backdrop let’s see how the four categories below can be applied to the Justice ecosystem, transform it with collaborative technology and compound the ROI of the initial business case.
The lowest hanging fruits in any ecosystem are operational savings. Operational savings are when you either stop doing something you used to do, or do it differently in a way that allows you get the same result but with less cost. Let’s take the remand process as an example.
Remanded inmates are individuals who do not qualify for bail and who instead are being held in pre-detention facilities, waiting to have their trial. When they are required to appear in front of a judge it is referred to as a remand appearance. Remand appearances require a lot of people and activity to conduct. Accused individuals typically need to spend an entire day being moved from the detention facility to the courtroom and then back. This requires accompanying guards (at least 2, sometimes up to 4), specialized vehicles for transport, all the costs of being away from the facility for the day – food, gas, etc., facilities at the courthouse to hold the prisoners until it is time for their hearing, and the risk of moving prisoners around is inherent in the undertaking.
Applying video conferencing technology to facilitate remand appearances is a perfect example of how substantial cost can be taken out of the ecosystem, maintaining the same end result.
The Operational Savings = Cost avoided / Cost of video conferencing technology
While it is difficult to obtain costs for all the components involved, here is a high level estimate of the costs that could be avoided:
1) Guards (avg. of 3) for a day = 3 x 8 hours x burdened hourly rate of Guards = 3 x 8 x $50 = $1,200 day
2) Cost of transportation: specialized vehicle + expenses = $750/day
3) Facilities requirements to handle prisoners in courthouse = $300/day
So, one remand appearance is probably costing taxpayers at best about $2,000. Multiplied by the number of appearances in a year that could be delivered via technology ~ 14,000 x $2,000 = $28,000,000 / year. Over a 10-year period, that is $280,000,000. Even if the estimate for the cost of one remand appearance is 50% above actual costs, there is still significant opportunity to realize operational savings.
Investing in the infrastructure required to facilitate these hearings would be significantly less than the 10-year cost of doing it without technology. One of the key investments in this process is the technology in the courtroom that allows the remand appearances to be conducted remotely.
In any organizational ecosystem there are always rooms where people from different parts of the ecosystem come together to meet. In the judicial system, these are the courtrooms in the various courthouses across the country.
A courtroom is where the 4 different constituents (Judicial, Legal, Law Enforcement and Corrections) come together to conduct their trials and is the focal point for moving the judicial process forward. To enable new communications tools to change the processes, the courtrooms must be equipped with the technology required to conduct electronic communication, which are rich experiences – just like being there.
Courtrooms that have been enabled in this way can now be much more productive in processing the courtroom workflow (the proceedings) – a must given the backlog created by the shutdown of physical locations as a result of the pandemic. A judge in court can hold remand appearances sequentially, connecting with prisoners who appear, via video, from various correctional facilities – one after another. The physical scheduling and logistics that used to be a key component of the “old method” suddenly becomes vastly simpler and less costly. The simplified scheduling and logistics of remand appearances through the use of video conferencing technology also increases the number of appearances processed. The beneficial results of doing this:
Less facilities required for remand prisoners = less time required in remand facilities
Greater use of the judge’s time, as well as other court personnel, and their ability to handle cases (therefore less judges and court personnel required)
Less backlog of cases to be heard
The opportunity for greater productivity in the Justice ecosystem can be found in many other processes. Many jurisdictions have learned that leveraging video can reduce — or eliminate — many of the hidden delays and costs of the Justice system associated with logistics such as travel time for a variety of participants including witnesses, interpreters, attorneys and inmates. In an ecosystem where everyone wants to talk to the inmate (prosecutors, probation officers, public defenders, judges, etc.) easier access via video can accelerate workflow.
Judges can hold sessions across a wide variety of locations one after the other all from the courtroom or chambers
Cases get processed faster – no delay waiting for critical mass of cases in remote locations
Bail hearings can be enabled by video
Plea bargains can be implemented much faster (don’t need a 2 hour process to get into the jail to see prisoner), which means less time in jail for visitors and less requirements for facilities
Access to justice – inmates can access attorneys and other legal aid remotely, which includes the benefit of upholding social distancing guidelines
Video testimony – expert witness (can greatly reduce cost),
Vulnerable witness – appearing in court is dangerous, disruptive and disturbing but their testimony can be critical; video makes it easier
Interpreters – can handle multiple sessions just minutes apart in different locations. Therefore overall need goes down because of the tremendous compression of time.
Telemedicine and educational programs in prisons
Clearly these productivity improvements, which were not planned for as part of the initial business case, would likely add even more financial benefits. Often, the productivity benefits that are realized in an ecosystem will quickly outweigh the operational savings provided.
As new communications infrastructure and endpoints have been put in place over recent years – a process accelerated by the pandemic – the Justice ecosystem is being unintentionally transformed with far greater capability than was initially envisioned. The people who are using the new communications tools will start to apply the same tools to situations that were never envisioned at the start of the ecosystem’s transformation.
Let’s look at three real life examples of strategic transformation in the Justice ecosystem:
1) International Trials
With the globalization of business, there are now occasions where the globalization of court communications could greatly help the operation and productivity of trials that happen where multiple countries are involved. Our company, ET Group, facilitated a trial like this where two courtrooms in two different countries were in a single combined session at exactly the same time. The benefits were substantial:
Air travel was substantially reduced
Lawyer’s monetary and timespend costs for that travel were eliminated
The proceedings were able to progress faster because both courtrooms in both countries were connected to each other in real time.
One court session brought together two different jurisdictions simultaneously.
2) Virtual Meeting Rooms (VMRs)
The use of VMRs in a collaborative ecosystem typically happens at a later stage in the development of the ecosystem. VMRs are very powerful because they can:
Drastically reduce costs
Drastically accelerate the workflow (the velocity of collaboration) of both existing processes and re-engineered processes
In the Justice ecosystem a perfect example of using VMRs would be to allow the general public to pay their traffic tickets with a hearing in a VMR. When you use a VMR you don’t need a courtroom (massive cost savings), and you allow a person who received the traffic ticket to call into the VMR for their trial. The judge, the officer, the lawyer (if required) and the defendant would all be participants in the VMR. The result is significant savings in travel costs for all involved.
Using VMRs as described in the traffic ticket scenario above would also require software which would would mimic the workflow of the traffic court. People would need to check in online, be held in a queue waiting to see the judge in the VMR with the other participants. But over time this additional expense stands to be minimal compared to what could be saved through the strategic use of VMRs within the Justice collaborative ecosystem.
3) Collaborative Portals
With technology infrastructure in place, new functionalities can be implemented that were not possible before. With software, recordings of the courtroom proceedings can now be captured in a way that was not previously possible. Video and audio streams can be recorded simultaneously from the different cameras and microphones in the courtroom and can be captured as the record of the court. These court records can be:
Instantly archived in the courtroom, with two layers of back-up (courthouse and datacenter)
Instantly retrieved whenever required by authorized personnel
Distributed with different pieces redacted in the recording, depending on who needs to review the record
Used as evidence in a court of law and have the veracity to stand up to any challenges
Be used in an online secure portal for authorized personnel to collaborate by reviewing and commenting on the record
Extending capabilities leverages the initial investment in technology already in place and further accelerates the velocity of collaboration in the Justice ecosystem, thus compounding the initial investment.
There are more than just these three strategic transformation examples which stand to further influence the business case for investment in a new collaborative technology platform. Being able to continue to conduct business and enable access to justice for citizens using VMRs in the face of a global pandemic – in some cases more than ever before – is a prime example.
The natural evolution of a collaborative ecosystem is to capture operational savings first, then to realize productivity gains as a by-product through the extension of the technology to new processes, and finally, hit the home runs through the strategic transformation of the ecosystem.
It takes considerable fortitude by those steering the ecosystem to make the investment without truly understanding how the ecosystem will function when the collaborative technology is fully implemented and enabled. They must resist the temptation to cut corners and compromise on the building of the platform that will become the foundation for transformation for years (if not decades) to come.
All its woes aside, COVID-19 helped accelerate a fundamental systemic change that was already occurring – one that has now proven itself here to stay. The technology stakeholders in Justice systems around the globe would do well to take notice.
The browser is slowly taking over as the user interface and connectivity platform for Unified Communications (UC). Voice, video and content sharing are all available from your browser, whenever you want. There is no longer a need for special applications to be installed on your devices allowing you to communicate with others. Less plugins and add-ons allow the browser to enable these types of programs and more native browser code enables the applications to work across browsers. UC technology is moving to the browser, this trend is gaining momentum and it makes sense.
Using a browser makes it easier for businesses to connect with consumers right from their web pages without having to worry about having an app like Skype or Facetime installed on the user’s device. For users, having the browser as the common tool for accessing applications, web content and UC makes life simpler because there is no need for specialized applications for each task.
Digital Signage is Moving from a Player Based to an Open Web Based Architecture
In a previous blog on the Next Phase of the Digital Signage Market, I discussed how the 2nd phase of the corporate digital signage market is characterized by the ability of the digital display platform (DDP – an evolution from just digital signage) to be open.
Phase 1 of the digital signage market on the other hand, was characterized by what I call a Player Based Architecture (PBA). The development of this market was described in this blog. The key feature of this architecture is the focus on the player that is attached locally to each screen. The player software and often the player hardware are proprietary. This approach solved a lot of IT scarcity issues as the market for digital signage developed, but today this approach has limitations within the enterprise that are not easily managed across the organization.
The Player Based Architecture has led to:
A fragmented marketplace with 100’s of solutions confusing buyers looking for a corporate solution
Departmental decisions being made for digital signage solutions and corporations who now find themselves with numerous digital signage providers that cannot be reconciled into a single platform
Almost no interoperability between players and content systems from one vendor to another. They are totally isolated silos.
The user departments mentioned above in #2 wanting to move the support of the digital signage solution they purchased from their department to IT, because it is an IT solution
Corporate customers who want to leverage the network of digital displays across their organization as a single platform that is capable of digital signage and much more
The Browser is a Key Piece of Unifying IP Technologies
An open digital display platform (DDP) that is IP based allows customers to use the DDP for digital signage and much more:
You can switch from digital signage being displayed on the digital screens to any other content – easily, centrally, without additional hardware, cables or manual intervention at the screen location
Other IT platforms can easily integrate to the DDP
Live streams – Telepresence, broadcast, webcasts, webcams, etc.
Potentially thousands of web widgets and content sources developed by hundreds of companies
Any other Internet compatible content
Looking at what is happening in IT from an architectural point-of-view, the browser is becoming the focal point and the common platform for:
Common development languages and tools
A web based architecture (WBA) makes a real open system. The browser and IP are the unifying technologies.
More and more technologies are moving to the browser. Unified Communications (UC) is a perfect example. In a recent blog on Skype and Skype for Business coming together, I wrote about how Microsoft also seems to be heading in the direction of the browser despite their massive base of Skype application users. UC is moving to the browser, via WebRTC. The browser is where the market is heading, and by taking advantage of this trend, you will simplify your systems, save money and speed deployment.
An Open, Web Based Architecture
The transition to a digital signage open, web architecture means using the browser as the player software, instead of proprietary software. Moving to a web based architecture has lots of advantages:
Players – Your choice of player widens substantially and costs go down
Capabilities – As the browser manufacturers enable more and more features within them, programmers in turn, can build richer capabilities within their browser code
Browser choice – software that runs in a browser can easily run on any standard browser – Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari, etc.
Compatibility with other technologies that use a web based architecture, e.g. UC, Internet of Things. This allows what were formerly islands of technology to easily connect with each other.
Improvements to the browser are occurring constantly and cost the consumer nothing at all. When the browser software clients are improved, updates are easily deployed.
Let’s use a very simple example to illustrate the freedom and capability that a WBA can provide over a PBA. Almost everyone is familiar with YouTube.
What if you wanted to play a YouTube video as part of your digital signage Show? If you were using a PBA, you would first, have to figure out if the player software would support playing a YouTube video. Many would not. But the progressive PBAs have built some capability into their player software to handle some web content.
Not any web content, but some web content. Player software is not a browser. It is a custom made application. The app may have enabled some browser like capability within the player application, but it certainly would not have the full capability of a browser. An analogy would be, Microsoft enabling some Internet Explorer capability within Word. They could certainly enable some browser functionality in Word, but Word would never be like Internet Explorer or Edge, Microsoft’s new browser.
What happens when you click on a YouTube video on your PC or mobile?
The video begins to play – right away, and the video stream starts to buffer while you are watching the video. This same simple process does not happen on your digital sign with a PBA, assuming that it is capable of supporting a YouTube video. The PBA must first stream the entire YouTube video to the player software client. Then the player software has to incorporate the YouTube video into it and initiate the play of the new Show that contains the YouTube video. This whole process can take a while.
In a Web Based Architecture, the browser is the player software. So when you tell a Show to start playing a YouTube video it does so immediately just like playing a YouTube video from a browser on your PC. With a WBA, you can also:
Update just a part of the Show with new content without having to first stream and then restart the Show
You can immediately start playing a new Show without having to first stream and then restart the new Show
Play any kind of Internet content without requiring modifications to the player software
Track playback of any content on the player using simple cookies and audit trails
Cache content on the player using the latest Application Cache features of HTML5, to continue playing even when the network fails
Your Greatest Strength, Is Your Greatest Weakness
The greatest strength of a WBA for digital displays is that Google, Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla and others will continue to develop and enable the browser with more functionality and capability. This will make a WBA architecture even more powerful over time and since browser software is free, you won’t have to pay for any of these improvements.
This can also be a disadvantage, because you are at the mercy of the companies who own the browsers to continue to enable them with greater functionality. In the first phase of the digital signage market the WBA was at a disadvantage, because browser functionality was limited and so was network capacity and availability. Those limitations are no longer there, but each of the different browsers has its own quirks. You can mitigate the quirks as you become more familiar with options and tools.
I believe that the digital signage market will become dominated by solutions that are based on web standards and Internet Protocol. That is where other technology is heading and digital signage needs to interact with these technologies in order to continue evolving as a platform.
In my last blog I wrote about the “Technology Market Lifecycle of Digital Signage”. The blog described the evolution of the first phase of the Digital Signage market which is just starting to commoditize. And just as Phase 1 starts to commoditize, Phase 2 of the market is just getting started.
Phase 2 is logical extension of the first phase and there is overlap, especially with the different adoption postures that customers have. But how do we know we are at a secondary phase of the market? A new phase is never defined by new technologies but by the customer’s needs and how technology can meet them. We stepped through the customer need and subsequent customer questions in a technology lifecycle, as those questions relate to the digital signage market, in the last blog and you can see the graphical depiction in the image below.
In this blog I am going to write about the first two customer questions that define Phase 2:
Does this work? (Can the customer need be met?)
Does this solve my business problem?
Does this work?
What is the customer need in this phase of the market?
Customers with digital signage networks are asking the question: Can I use my existing network of displays to do other things? They don’t want to stop using them for digital signage but they do want to do more than play content files on their network of digital displays. That network of digital displays can be leveraged to do a lot more, and some of the things they want to do are pretty critical.
What exactly do they want to do with their existing and growing network of digital displays? They want to use the displays:
For instant Emergency Broadcast notification
For Town Hall communications, allowing an executive to take over the digital display network and to speak live on the displays
To connect other technologies in their buildings to their display platform and communicate status, feeds and other information
To play internal advertisements or to make money by playing other advertiser’s messages
To easily display content from other corporate technology platforms and from any Internet source (I will address this in my next blog)
Each one of these items is a topic onto itself, and I hope to dedicate a blog to each of them, but for now, here is a high level overview.
In the event of an emergency – a fire, bad weather, bomb threat, a shooter, and other emergency situations, there is an increasing requirement to immediately take over a single existing digital display network or multiple independent digital display networks and unify them into a single emergency broadcast. In the case of some Higher Ed institutions, this requirement is becoming more important than the digital signage itself. Studies show that students on campus pay attention to the digital displays. In fact, 96% notice digital signage immediately and can recall its content. And when something happens, Emergency Ops need the ability to instantly take over what is playing on the digital screens because seconds count.
The digital signage network is one of the most effective ways to communicate in the event of an emergency to in-building occupants or the on-campus community.
Town Hall Communications
Most digital signs are placed in common areas where people congregate or pass by, e.g. lobbies, foyers, cafeterias, lunch rooms, atriums, hallways, branch locations, etc. Corporations, government and educational institutions have a constant need for their top executives to communicate to their constituents live. It isn’t economical or practical to assemble everyone in one location but you can assemble them in the common areas of their work locations. If you can turn your digital signage network into a live broadcast network without having to buy a lot of extra equipment or having to switch the equipment sending the signal to the digital display, then you have a really viable solution for Town Hall updates.
Connecting to Other Building Technologies
The amount of technology that is making its way into everything we own or come in contact with is increasing every year. Buildings are no exception. They are filled with many different systems that have an increasingly higher proportion of digital technologies in them – fire alarms, security cameras, door locks, lights, HVAC, etc. Historically these are islands of technology and they do not communicate to each other, but as they become more digital, they are transforming to IP technology and if they have an IP address they can talk to each other. This is a big part of the Internet of Things (IoT) story.
Digital signage is one of the best ways to communicate information from other building systems. Both:
Status updates, e.g. real time energy savings or building maintenance updates
Real time information, e.g. security camera feeds on the digital sign
Some organizations play their own ads on their digital signage displays but others are willing to play other people’s ads. For those who don’t mind playing other people’s ads, what easier way to use your digital display platform than to make some money from it.
What do All These New Requirements Have in Common?
Some of these items aren’t new, but they are either being done in a less than optimal way or it is just too difficult and costly to implement them based on the digital signage platform that is in place. Very few existing digital signage networks deliver these kinds of capabilities except in very rudimentary ways. The player based architectures that were so successful in Phase 1 of the digital signage market just do not provide the integration flexibility required to interface with all the other technologies.
A new architecture is required to give the digital signage network the capability to easily adapt itself to all these new requirements in an elegant way. An architecture based on web technologies, or as I call it – a Web Based Architecture.
The Ability to Easily Integrate – Solves My Business Problem
Phase 2 of the Digital Signage Market Technology Adoption Curve, is just beginning. Phase 2 technologies will help users solve their need to integrate their digital display network with other technologies to be able to use them in the ways that they want. To make them a platform for different types of communication which can be triggered to switch content manually or by automated triggers.
With a player based architecture (PBA) it is very difficult to do all these things, but with a web based architecture (WBA) all this is possible. Phase 2 of a market takes us to a new curve with new technology delivering new capabilities. Here is what that market evolution looks like for a technology that has re-invented itself.
It is the same curve starting all over again. And for the digital signage market it is based on a new architecture that can easily INTEGRATE to other technologies.
To web content, e.g. YouTube, Social Media, other live sites
To allow triggering of content – manual or automated, for Emergency management and more
For IoT connectivity
To enable Town Hall forums
In my next digital signage blog, I will contrast in more detail, the Player Based Architecture of Phase 1 of the market with the Web Based Architecture of Phase 2 of the market. I hope to demonstrate the flexibility the WBA provides and difference it makes.
Digital Signage has been more of a “nice to have” technology than a “mission critical” technology, but that is quickly changing. Digital Signage is evolving from its current Phase 1 technology evolution curve, to its Phase 2 technology evolution curve, by becoming a Digital Display Platform that is capable of much more than content communication.
It will take a few blogs to give you the entire picture of the current state of the digital signage market, so with this first blog, I will describe the first phase of the evolution in Digital Signage – a historical perspective that brings us to the current state of Phase 1. This perspective is critical to not only understanding how we got here, but in subsequent blogs, what the new Phase 2 technologies look like and how to distinguish them from Phase 1 technologies.
First, a high level definition of what Digital Signage is and the list of the components that make up a Digital Signage solution. Wikipedia says that digital signs are a sub segment of signage, and that they “use technologies such as LCD, LED and Projection to display content such as digital images, video, streaming media, and information and can be found in public spaces, transportation systems, museums, stadiums, retail stores, hotels, restaurants, and corporate buildings etc.”
What is a Digital Signage solution made up of?
A Digital Signage solution is made up of many different components coming together. If one or more of the components falls short, it can jeopardize the success of the entire initiative. The different components include:
Hardware – server(s), displays, players and other sundry connection or signal distribution components
Software – server and client (player) side
Network and/or signal distribution
With this brief definition of Digital Signage and what a Digital Signage solution is made of, let’s dig into how this technology has evolved.
Historical view of the Digital Signage Market Development
Every technology goes through different stages of development as it comes out into the marketplace. Frank Lynn & Associates have created the following graph to show the stages of a technology’s lifecycle and the key customer question that each stage seeks to answer.
Technology Market Lifecycle: Frank Lynn & Associates
Stage 1: Does this work? – Content Show Creation
Digital Signage technology first came to market in the mid-1990s and the Scala solution was one of the first, if not the first, Digital Signage solution in the market. The problem that the solution providers were trying to solve was to make a software solution, that would allow a user to build a customized “Show” that could then be played smoothly on a digital display. The Show would be built using image and video files that would then be played on a screen just like a TV show or commercial.
Stage 1 of the Technology Lifecycle, is where a technology either solves the first problem or the technology dies. With Digital Signage the software suppliers were able to create the software to allow users to create and play a show locally on a screen.
The show could be created, but now it had to be able to operate in a commercial environment.
Stage 2: Can you solve my business problem? – Content Playability
The challenge was to make the show play at many different locations, on an affordable player (PC) that had enough power (this is the time when Windows XP ruled) to play the content files without having the playback of the show be “jerky”. It had to play smoothly and without a glitch. Just like watching a TV Show. Oh – and the content had to be delivered to the players on networks of 15-20 years ago.
The Digital Signage suppliers solved the business problem by doing a number of things:
They created custom hardware players that had powerful and fast processors with enough muscle to play “fat” or “heavy” content files and Show effects like tickers running across a screen which are very compute intensive, as they require the image to be re-drawn on the screen every time the image moves over 1 pixel
They built customized player software which enabled local caching and playing of content
They built compression algorithms for the content enabling it to be sent over the networks more efficiently and de-compressed at the players
The solution providers built an architecture, which was based on working around the scarcity of IT resources – player power and limited network capacity. It was brilliant! And that architecture continues to dominate the first Phase of the Digital Signage market.
Stage 3: Can you make this easy to buy, deploy and support? – Digital Signage Deployment Manageability
The DS suppliers had solved the first two problems and they now had to address the next market problem, i.e. making their solution easy to buy, deploy and support.
They worked with resellers and integrators, especially in the AV market, who understood the inherent AV nature of the hardware requirements. These resellers worked with their local customers to sell, deploy and support the solutions. But the DS suppliers also had to build IT manageability into their solution so that a network of 10, 100, or 1,000+ digital screens could be managed remotely.
These remote management capabilities included:
The ability to see what was playing on any screen
To determine if the show was playing
To monitor the network status and;
The ability to re-boot players remotely
Finally, after the major problems had been resolved and the technology continued to mature, customers demanded better price performance and new competitors sought to differentiate their solutions by doing things better and cheaper.
Stage 4: Can you reduce my purchase cost? – Agnostic, Low cost players
I think most readers have heard of Moore’s law, which says that the power of processor technology will double roughly every 2 years. Networks are also much faster and more robust today than they were 5-10 years ago. The ironic thing is that the “scarcity” problems that had to be worked around in Stage 2 are becoming obsolete in Stage 4 of the market. Today you can buy agnostic hardware players for the Windows, Linux or other operating environments that are just as powerful as the proprietary players that were created in Stage 2 of the market.
The image to the left is an Intel Compute Stick. It is very much like a USB stick, and it connects directly into a USB port, but it is a bit longer and wider than a standard USB stick. It sells for between $100-$200 depending on features and whether you want a Windows 8 OS loaded on it or Ubuntu. This player and many others like it, are eliminating the requirement for the proprietary players in Stage 2 of the market and bringing the player price point down by a factor of up to 10 times.
When you combine these players with a Digital Signage software solution that does not charge player software licenses you save even more money.
Here is the same Technology Lifecycle Market graph with the different Digital Signage stages overlaid on top.
What happens to the Technology at the end of Stage 4?
The market will either commoditize, or the market will evolve to a second phase, where the same curve starts all over again, based on new market requirements and the technology that meets those market requirements.
This is what I see happening in the Digital Signage market. Stay tuned and learn more about Phase 2 of the market.
The promise of bringing Skype together with Skype for Business (S4B), has a lot of voice and video communications enterprise staff pretty excited. They have been holding onto the promise for more than a year that Microsoft will make life seamless for them by bringing together the enterprise and consumer worlds of voice and video (V&V).
“We’re also making it easier to connect to people everywhere. Lync already offers instant messaging and audio calling with Skype users. Skype for Business adds video calling and the Skype user directory making it possible to call any Skype user on any device.”
But what has, or does, that promise hold for the enterprise?
Sure it will be nice for the directories to come together so anyone can find anyone else, and maybe there is now full connectivity at all levels (Presence to Video), but I don’t find much evidence of a seamless and full connection. (If you can point to real progress in this area, please leave comments below.)
I think it is still going to take some time. And … in today’s world, time is more of the essence than ever before.
As I was searching online for more evidence of Skype and S4B coming together I found some interesting articles on what Microsoft was focusing on in the V&V market, and it didn’t really have much to do with Skype and S4B coming together.
Skype (Microsoft) seems to be focused in a new direction. Enabling V&V from your browser – if you are using Internet Explorer. From about a year ago:
“Together with the industry-leading expertise of Skype and Internet Explorer, we’re excited to announce development has begun on the ORTC API for WebRTC, a key technology to make Real-Time Communications (RTC) on the web a reality.
We aim to make browser-based calls more convenient by removing the need to download a plugin. It’s all about convenience – imagine you’ll be able to simply open IE and make a Skype call to friends, family, or get real-time support for that new device right from your browser.”[Emphasis added].
“We’re thrilled about the exciting scenarios that ORTC APIs enable and we are proud to be one of the first to use these ORTC APIs in the Edge Browser. The ORTC APIs will enable us to develop advanced real-time communications scenarios – like group video calls with participants all on different browsers and operating systems – using features like Simulcast and Scalable Video Coding (SVC), all while preserving the ability to easily interop with existing telephony networks.”
“The ORTC API preview for Microsoft Edge is the latest result of a close, ongoing collaboration between the Windows and Skype teams. Together we’re able to apply decades of experience building great web platforms to deliver some of the largest and most reliable real-time communications services for businesses and consumers. What does this mean for you? For developers, we’re providing new ways to build innovative real-time communications into your web-based experiences. For people using Skype and Skype for Business at work or at home, calls and meetings on the web will soon get even easier and more seamless.”
It looks like Microsoft is shifting its focus to a Browser based approach for their real-time communications connections. Maybe this is in addition to the direction to bring Skype and S4B together?
What does all this mean?
A new way to interoperate between Skype and S4B?
Microsoft is changing paths or going down duel paths?
Browser based apps win?
All of the above?
The Market Waits for No-one
Browser based communications tools are not a new idea; WebRTC has been the poster child for this technology for some time and is gaining significant momentum. The path to using this technology is being forged by many tech companies and their customers.
There are over 210 companies now offering WebRTC based software products (http://www.webrtcworld.com/webrtc-list.aspx) and the list is rapidly growing. WebRTC is a quiet revolution that is being incorporated in multiple channels of communications without fanfare:
Google uses WebRTC in Hangouts
Citrix uses it in their GoToMeeting product
Uberconference uses it in their global voice conferencing service
Norwegian Telco giant Telenor launched a popular video chat service (appear.in) on a WebRTC platform which has thousands of users worldwide
One of the world’s largest telecom operators, AT&T, has embraced WebRTC
In April, 2015, Facebook announced that it was ditching the agreement with Microsoft to use Skype for voice and video calling and going to WebRTC
The Business to Consumer (B2C) Market for Voice and Video Communications
Enterprise user departments are not waiting for IT solutions to enable V&V for their B2C customers. The leading enterprises have already brought their solutions to market. Here is an example from Barclays Bank:
In a previous blog, “Transforming the Healthcare Collaborative Ecosystem”, I pointed out how integrating V&V into healthcare processes is revolutionizing how things are done. You don’t need to wait for Skype and S4B to come together – the evidence is growing. In fact, by doing so you will be falling further behind the competition.
In the B2C market, using the native browser will be the way of the future for real-time voice and video and how Skype and S4B come together will only matter for enterprise internal communications. Microsoft knows that. That is why they are excited about their new direction. It is worth noting that some independent Microsoft S4B developers already have an API in place to connect with S4B on the enterprise side and have enabled browser based V&V chat for B2C applications. Anywhere365 is a contact centre app for S4B that enables S4B contact centre agents to chat, have voice and video calls, as well as application share with the clients that are using their browser. No need for the customer to have any particular client installed on their device.
Speed to market is what matters now – especially in B2C. Integrating voice and video into your consumer facing web applications has been done in as little as 2 months.
If you are still not convinced and want to wait for the integration of Skype and S4B for B2C V&V, ask yourself a couple of simple questions:
Do you really want to have to ensure every consumer device has Skype on it to be able to connect to it? (It is simple to connect on a browser when your customer is on your website)
What is your best case timeline for integrating a B2C voice and video communications based on the current Skype client?
If you check out some of the Microsoft articles I referenced above, you will note the push that Microsoft has for Microsoft Edge – their next generation browser – which I am sure, will be powerful. I think that long term, the proprietary Skype client will be moth balled in place of a more open browser experience. However it actually turns out, I commend Microsoft for proactively positioning themselves with the browser voice and video capability.
The Skype brand will stick around, but today’s Skype client technology might not last.
Video Conferencing, Live Event Streaming, Video On Demand, Digital Signage, Security Camera systems and Video Chat are all different forms of video communications. By video communications, I mean a communication that is watched and heard. According to Cisco’s data, video is the biggest and fastest growing segment of all Internet traffic.
Figure 1: Global IP Traffic: 2014 – 2019 (Cisco)
Video traffic used by Consumers in 2015 is already more than 60% of all Internet traffic and by 2019 Cisco predicts it will grow by 2.5 times, accounting for almost 70% of all Internet traffic. See Figure 1.
Business video is the fastest growing segment in the enterprise use of the Internet. In 2015 it accounts for just under 8% of the global IP traffic, the 4th largest category, but by 2019, it will become the 2nd largest global IP traffic category accounting for 11% of global IP traffic.
Growing by more than 3 times between 2015 and 2019, Business video will be the fastest growing segment of global IP traffic. Business global IP video traffic will grow from 5,711 Petabytes in 2015 to 18,618 Petabytes in 2019.
Why is business video usage growing so much?
Video is, by-far, the most compelling communications method to engage customers and employees. It is also the most effective method for disseminating company-wide information.
Business video communications, in all its forms, should be something that is important to every CEO and CIO. Unlike the consumer video traffic segment, business video is not dominated by the streaming of entertainment such as movies and TV shows. The business video segment of global IP traffic is made up of the following primary categories of video usage (in no particular order):
Live Event Streaming
Video on Demand (VoD)
Security Camera (streaming and VoD)
Each of these segments can be considered as a market on its own, but more and more there will be relationships between these segments, and businesses that are able to easily connect them together will realize advantages over their peers.
Enterprise Class Capabilities
When an enterprise deploys a new technical capability, they need to make sure that the solutions are up to snuff in order to fit into the enterprise IT world. Security is always the primary concern but it is certainly not the only criterion that a new IT solution will have to pass the test on. Here are some items to consider:
Enterprise directory integration
Archiving and retrieval
Tools to manage the deployment of new infrastructure
Serviceability of the new technology
And more ….
Each one of the categories above has a consumer solution(s) which could be used in an enterprise. These consumer solutions are not enterprise hardened technology solutions because they don’t address the list of items above. Here are some examples:
Enterprise Hardened Solution
Cisco (H.323); Skype for Business; Vidyo
Video on Demand (VoD)
Kaltura; VBrick; Qumu
The data tells us that business video will be bigger than the business use of the Internet for ‘Web & Other Data’ in 2019. That means that enterprises who have not already done so, need to be ready to provide and manage IT solutions in each of the business video categories. They will need to ask some questions on behalf of their organization:
Do we have a solution or platform for each of the business video categories?
Are each of these islands of technology or will they integrate with each other?
Do we need an in house solution or a fully managed cloud solution?
Does the solution meet our enterprise technology requirements?
Who will use the solutions and how will we deploy the technology and train the users?
These are just some of the questions, but some important ones.
Enterprises are already seeing the value of video. According to Wainhouse, 4 out of 5 enterprises say that video use improves productivity and efficiencies in their organizations. Further, 73% want their organizations to expand the usage of video. But as video technology becomes more pervasive, its uses will expand into applications that most people have never heard of. For example, video magnification will provide new capabilities to organizations.
By magnifying recorded or live video:
A Doctor can take the pulse of a patient they are talking to over video while their normal conversation is going on by automatically magnifying the skin of the patient until the pulse can be seen and measured.
Security personnel can reproduce entire conversations, even if the people being viewed have their backs turned away from the camera. The conversation the people are having is causing objects all around them to vibrate and that vibration when focused on and magnified can re-create the conversation.
These are just a couple of examples of how one small niche video capability will provide new uses few people ever imagined.
With the explosion of video communications, there will also be a corresponding increase in the requirement to record, archive and retrieve video communications. Some of these capabilities are already in place and sometimes the services of product specialists are needed.
Over the next few blogs I am going to delve deeper into some of the video communications categories other than video conferencing.
We have written many blogs on video conferencing and I personally use the technology so much that when I have a call that doesn’t have video, its uncomfortable because something is missing. I feel like I am driving a car without my seatbelt on. Here is a partial list of some of our prior blogs related to video conferencing.