When Cisco Systems filed suits in recent high-profile litigation in the U.S. and Europe, its in-house legal team never met face to face with outside counsel. Instead, the networking technology company relied on its TelePresence videoconferencing connections to link meeting participants in several locations.

On another occasion, Cisco used TelePresence to select and collaborate with outside counsel in preparation for an argument before the Supreme Court. The first face-to-face meeting occurred on the courthouse steps.

“Certainly a business case could be made for in-person conferences in major litigation, but if it is not necessary, why do it?” says Steve Harmon, Cisco’s senior director of legal services.

Videoconferencing also links the Cisco legal team, whether they are working in one of the company’s offices or at home. The entire Cisco legal department hasn’t met in the same location for four years. Harmon has worked from a home office in Las Vegas leading a legal team in San Jose, Calif., for the past 11 years.

Such use of videoconferencing and other technologies has enabled Cisco to both save money and reduce its carbon footprint. Cisco reports saving $100 million in employee travel expense in 2009 compared to 2006, not counting hotels, restaurants, transfers and related expenses. Between October 2006 and July 2008, air travel expenses for Cisco fell by 37 percent, reducing its carbon emissions by an estimated 27 million cubic meters.

You Are There

Videoconferencing technology has evolved far beyond the blurry video and time-delayed audio of earlier days. Today, HD video relays on giant screens set into the wall of common rooms at different sites. As people sit at desks or wander about the common room at one site, they can see and talk to people at the other site in life-size video.

“Telepresence” refers to technologies that make people feel they are present in another location. It includes such features as cameras discreetly placed to simulate eye contact and three-dimensional audio effects simulating realistic changes in sound when a speaker walks around a room. Environments in multiple locations can also be simulated to appear the same with respect to lighting, acoustics, decor and furniture, giving participants the impression they are together at the same table.

Electronic whiteboards provide meeting participants a common area on their computer screens in which to add, edit or display drawings and other data.

Enhancing Efficiency

Although hard cost savings resulting from reducing company travel through videoconferencing can be substantial (see “Doing the Math”), the issue for companies goes beyond dollars and cents, says Ira Weinstein, partner and senior analyst at Wainhouse Research.

“CFO-friendly travel avoidance is only the tip of the iceberg of the benefits associated with using videoconferencing,” Weinstein says. He contends that videoconferencing and other collaboration tools help develop more effective work teams, shorten product-development cycles, enhance integration with suppliers and customers and lower operating costs.

“The success of any enterprise ultimately rises and falls on the quality and speed of its decision-making,” says Weinstein. “And the hard costs resulting from lessened productivity through delayed meetings and slower decision-making cannot always be determined. Enterprises that fail to use modern communications technologies, that do not leverage the knowledge base of workers and limit the potential for collaboration, run the very real risk of falling behind their competition.”

For global legal departments, videoconferencing can help overcome cultural barriers. People communicate in many ways beyond words: by facial expressions, hand gestures and vocal tones that are critical in bridging cultural and language issues, says Matthew Allegrucci, deputy general counsel of Japanese-based pharmaceutical company Daiichi Sankyo.

For example, in Japan there is a formal protocol for conducting meetings that allows participants to ask questions only after the presenter has finished his presentation. Videoconferencing allows participants in other countries to pick up on cues of what is expected in the meeting, says Allegrucci. Daiichi Sankyo videoconferences can include more than 100 participants in four locations in the U.S., U.K. and Japan.

To collaborate successfully across the globe, Weinstein recommends having “many arrows in the quiver.” Web conferencing, in which participants are connected by audio and view common material on their computer screens, may offer effective communication for some purposes, such as web-based training. In a sales presentation or negotiations, viewing other participants through video conferencing can be extremely important, Weinstein says.

Cost Considerations

Cisco TelePresence videoconferencing connects team members face to face in virtual meetings transmitting high-definition 1080p (full HD) video to as many as 48 locations. The technology requires a private network with a bandwidth larger than that available through an IP Internet connection. Other providers include Sony, Panasonic, Vidyo, Avistar and Radvision.

Less sophisticated video conferencing requiring less bandwidth can be accomplished over the Internet through the use of public IP networks. This technology replaces the earlier videoconferencing technology that transmitted video over telephone lines using an integrated services digital network (ISDN)–a technology still used in many areas of Europe and Asia.

For companies that lease equipment, hourly rates can vary widely. A videoconferencing room will generally cost $200 to $300 per hour, but it may cost as much as $500 per hour, depending on its functionality.

For web conferences, Cisco WebEx and other Internet offerings require only a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) subscription without the need to deploy additional hardware or IT resources.