Shortly after Aid Association for Lutherans in Appleton, Wis. announced it was merging with Lutheran Brotherhood in Minneapolis in June 2001, two computer-based videoconferencing rooms were set up in each location. “We thought this was adequate to meet demand, but we were totally wrong,” says AAL/LB manager of media productions Mike Shetter. One year later, the number of videoconferencing rooms has grown to 16 — and they're usually booked solid eight hours a day, five days a week.

“It's the next best thing to meeting face-to-face,” says Lynn Schwandt, financial associates event manager for AAL/LB. Schwandt works in the Appleton office, but her two-person staff and most of her other 10 colleagues in the event planning department are based in Minneapolis.

More Meetings, Less Cost

In merger-crazed industries like financial services, e-meetings can help far-flung employees to communicate with each other while keeping travel costs under control. In addition to its videoconferencing rooms, AAL/LB also has teleconferencing facilities, and eight executives are outfitted with desktop cameras that allow them to videoconference from their desks.

Videoconferencing is proving to be the most popular virtual meeting option with AAL/LB employees, and Shetter says that additional videoconference rooms are being considered for both the Appleton and Minneapolis offices.

“It's difficult to pinpoint the cost-savings,” he says, “but we know that videoconferences save people a tremendous amount of time. They don't have to waste a whole day of travel for a one-hour meeting. Would we have all the meetings we are now having without videoconference capabilities? Hard to say.”

Shetter says installation costs average about $10,000 per videoconferencing system, but stresses that he relies on the expertise of an efficient in-house information technology department to make it work. “If you had to build an IT infrastructure from the ground up, it would cost significantly more.”

How It Works

Initially there was a “lunch and learn” series that gave employees a basic overview of the videoconferencing system. Help sheets with step-by-step instructions are posted in each room. The way it works couldn't be simpler.

People reserve a videoconferencing room on a first-come, first-served basis through Lotus Notes, the company-wide e-mail and scheduling system. Each room contains a 32-inch television with a device that resembles a small camera sitting on top of it.

Users click a remote control that activates a menu on the television screen, and from there they can access an electronic phone book of numbers that connect to any of the remote videoconferencing rooms in AAL/LB's other offices. For meetings that involve big groups of attendees, large-screen projectors are added.

There's also one device, called a gateway, that allows the internal networks to connect with an outside location through ISDN lines. “Quite often our videoconferences involve a room in Minneapolis, a room in Appleton, and a room somewhere else,” says Shetter.

He says there is good picture quality and there are no speech delays at AAL/LB videoconferences, partly due to the fact that attendees typically don't move around a lot (excessive movement during videoconferences can lead to jerky motions on the monitor).

While the AAL/LB videoconference rooms work adequately, only one was purpose-built. Ideally, recommends Shetter, lighting should be angled so that it illuminates the faces of participants, not the top of their heads as is common in most overhead fluorescent systems. In addition, acoustic treatments can ensure that voices don't sound as if they are coming from inside of a cave.

Videoconferencing has not replaced person-to-person internal meetings at AAL/LB: There's also a daily chartered plane that shuttles employees between the two locations. Schwandt has used the plane several times and says it is likely that she will fly weekly to Minneapolis for person-to-person meetings in the foreseeable future. “But it's not feasible or cost-effective to fly back and forth every day,” she adds. “And as much as videoconferencing has taken off here, I think it's going to increase even more. When mergers happen, people need to travel a lot at first. Then as things calm down and you get to a business-as-usual atmosphere, virtual meetings become more and more effective.”

New Name for AAL/LB

There are many sea changes when organizations merge, and now there's a whopper for the former Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood. A new name, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, has recently been approved by the membership and is currently awaiting state and federal approval.

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