The first step for Procter & Gamble employees now when they plan a meeting is to make a choice: virtual, live, or both? That's because last year senior meetings manager Diana Johantgen helped to incorporate a virtual meetings protocol into her company's strategic meetings management program, starting right when an employee registers an event request.

“They know to first think about this: Can the business objective for the meeting be met by using an electronic-meeting tool?” Whether it's audio, webcast, telepresence, or even a virtual-world application, Johantgen explains, “our policy is set up so that virtual media must be considered.”

And when meeting leaders answer “yes” on the request page, they're linked to P&G's Virtual Collaboration Tools Assessment Web site. There they find an overview of each electronic option, including the number of participants it can support, video-transmission quality, and complexity.

While Johantgen and 19 others in the meetings department still handle more than 800 in-person meetings each year, the number of P&G events using technology to bring some or all attendees together is growing by the week. Making the transition easier for meeting leaders is a 16-person visual communications design (VCD) and events delivery team, plus several employees known as “global interactive media entrepreneurs.”

Here's the hierarchy of application choices for meeting leaders: Instant messaging is the most basic, followed by Microsoft NetMeeting, which connects people via their own computers for multipoint data conferencing, text chat, whiteboard, file transfer, and point-to-point audio and video. “One of these options often fits the bill for small groups,” notes Bill Martin, a global interactive media entrepreneur.

For more sophisticated events, the VCD/events delivery team offers Centra, an online teaching tool that can also be used for meetings. “And on the flip side of that, we offer Microsoft LiveMeeting, which is primarily for meetings but can also be used for teaching,” explains Martin, “then we have the more lifelike telepresence option.” P&G has dedicated facilities for the high-definition videoconferencing systems, which allow users to feel as though they're all in the same room. P&G is also ramping up its use of InXpo, where participants enter a virtual world as avatars, interacting with other attendees on trade-show floors and in meeting rooms.

“The meeting coordinator has to think hard about the advantages and disadvantages of each technology option,” Martin says. “But we're here to help them work through those things.”

Even for experienced meeting leaders, that help is necessary due to the rapid changes in application features and costs. “New vendors and new solutions are constantly appearing, so the VCD group uses a standard request for proposal process for each e-meeting delivery; we also assess each meeting's objectives so that the right technology is chosen,” says Jan Dunavent, technology and operations manager. “We believe it's too early in the innovation cycle to determine which technologies and suppliers will have staying power,” making the VCD team critical to keeping quality high and costs low over the long term. The team also “tracks spending for every aspect of meetings with electronic-delivery components, and then works with the purchasing department to leverage our buying power,” she adds.

Dunavent notes that while management has not yet set an explicit goal for converting in-person events to virtual events, “P&G does have overall travel-reduction goals. So converting face-to-face meetings to e-meetings wherever we can allows us to contribute to that goal without sacrificing the quality of our collaboration.”

Interestingly, even if a P&G meeting leader feels an event should take place in person, attendees can decide which means of participation best suits their needs. “For typical team meetings or project-update meetings, we have a ‘collaboration compass’ that helps determine if you need to physically attend, or else feel, see, or simply hear what will take place in that meeting,” says Julie Desylva, external relations manager for P&G's Global Business Services division. For instance, those who need to “feel” the substance of a meeting can choose telepresence; those who need to see what's happening can use webcasting; those who need only to hear or follow the proceedings can use audioconferencing or the instant-messaging stream.

Not only is the goal to find the best delivery method for each attendee, but to extend the reach of many events around the world, or allow people to participate only in the parts of the meeting that are relevant to them. “These days, we often need to link in people from overseas; I'd say about 10 percent of my meetings have that component right now,” says Johantgen. “And while we don't have a mandate for how often we must use these tools, we're looking to ramp up usage in the near future.”

“Proximity drives a lot of the decisions,” says Doug James, senior manager for VCD/events delivery. “For instance, central and eastern Europe, as well as Asia, are so spread out that we do a higher percentage of their collaborative events via technology,” reducing not only hard and soft costs related to employee travel, but also P&G's carbon footprint. [The company would not reveal how much it has saved on travel by using collaborative technology.]

The ultimate test is whether these technologies are robust enough to satisfy outside clients. So far, so good. “Several divisions use LiveMeeting to reach their vendors; it's more efficient, and the clients seem to have no problems,” Martin says. “And I know that our marketing teams use it with agencies from time to time for conceptual meetings.”