by Craig Park FSMPS, Assoc. AIA, Principal Consultant, The Sextant Group

“No matter where you go, there you are.”

These prescient words, attributed to Confucius over twenty-five hundred years ago, are truer in 2011 than ever before. Over a decade ago, we were adapting buildings for the “Information Age.” Since then, we have seen the “Age of Collaboration” take over. If you haven’t been using, designing, or adapting to collaboration yourself or for your clients, it is time to give collaboration some serious consideration.

Today, media-rich communications allows us to connect instantly across geographies and time zones in ways Confucius could not envision. Technology has provided both platforms and tools that have dramatically changed how humankind interacts. We take for granted partnerships that were completely impractical just a few years ago, and media-rich collaborations across organizations, institutions and enterprises are now a part of everyday life.

In business, the boardroom is no longer a forum for presentation of past facts, but an interactive ‘state-of-the-enterprise’ bridge. In institutions, connectivity now spans hierarchies and breaks down bureaucratic silos. In education, the classroom is no longer the limit for faculty or students’ possibilities to expand connections to new sources of learning. To succeed in the always-connected world, executives, administrators, students, and teachers are all becoming more agile learners, creators, and collaborators.

Architectural Design Challenges

No longer can planning be left to late in the design process because, while much of technology is still ‘buried’ in the between the walls, the same technology infrastructure has become as important to the building as its mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems in supporting the architectural design.

There are several key architectural design issues to be considered in a space designated for collaboration. Planning for any collaboration solution requires coordination and integration with facilities (architecture, structural, MEP), as well as AV, acoustics, lighting, IT, and telecommunications infrastructure. Each technology has its own impact on these aspects of the facility, and early analysis can simplify the collaboration system implementation and reduce costs and headaches.

As examples, the following programmatic issues should be addressed early in the planning process:

• Imaging criteria. Audience size drives camera location(s), size of screens, and visual sightlines, which in turn have an impact on room width, ceiling height, lighting, audio, and furniture layout flexibility.

• Furniture selection, component layout, and lighting. These factors are most often cited as the factors that influence the quality of collaboration systems. Ergonomics are extremely important. This directly relates to the importance of room design. Lighting fixtures should be selected and located to provide good illumination of the participants’ faces, and backlighting of the rooms perimeter walls.

• Room acoustics. Even more than video, the quality of the audio is consistently rated as most essential by users of any collaboration space. Planning for wall treatments that minimize echoes and control external noise (e.g., HVAC systems) is important.

• IT Infrastructure. Internet-based collaboration systems have their planning issues as well. Desktop configurations (i.e., graphics capabilities, memory, hard-drive capacity), LAN capacity and transmission speeds are all issues that should be addressed before implementation.

Rooms designed to integrate video and Internet meeting capabilities require architects to work closely with both the end-users and the AV design team to ensure that room provisioning, proportion and configuration maximize the effectiveness of audio or video collaboration.

The design challenges are twofold. First, it is to help the end user get the best capabilities for their budget, and optimize the functionality of their facilities and the various technology systems. Secondly, and sometimes at cross-purposes to the first, is making the room functional when it is not being used for technology-enabled collaboration.

Types of Collaboration Space

Emerging interactive technologies are fostering richer collaboration across all learning organizations, and teaching and teaming environments have become a microcosm of new collaboration paradigms. The new institution is compelled to provide resources from electronically enabled conference rooms and training spaces to desktop media production and on-line learning, from one-to-one communication via smart-phones, to one-to-many multi-casts via video origination systems, to group-to-group using video conferencing systems.

New corporate and institutional facilities demonstrate these innovative technology options with multi-image, tactile and interactive displays, allowing for real time data and analysis to be immersive. New higher education learning spaces mimic the real-world environments of business, research, and development, giving students useful experience in settings simulating those they will find after graduation. On an even more exciting level, new team-oriented collaboration spaces in the growing number of campus learning commons are fostering new entrepreneurial efforts that are a virtual laboratory for new businesses models that will shape the future.

Collaborative projects have become widespread in both the office and in learning environments. Business leaders understand that the best advances in business processes are developed in multi-disciplinary teams.

However, collaborators know the challenges of this type of effort. There are similar challenges in academic collaboration efforts, even while the momentum is quickly shifting to self-directed, team-based learning models.

Today, collaborative team-oriented software systems bridge that gap by tracking the progress of each member of the team, allowing each member to see the contributions of the group, reducing duplicated effort. These same systems speed up the collaborative process by increasing interactivity between team members and adding efficiencies to the team’s efforts.

Team collaboration tools also improve inter-team communication, which fosters improvements in reaching goals. Moreover, because the entire team contributes (and can see those contributions instantly), the result reflects the effort of the entire group, which engenders buy in and support.

Choosing the Right Technology

Audio, video, and web-based conferencing, as well as collaboration software, continue to improve with advances in technology.

Audio teleconferencing systems. These are the easiest to implement, but are not without some of the same design considerations. Even the simple tabletop speakerphone has power cords, transformers, and cables to consider. Building a custom audio teleconference system for a specific conference room requires coordination with both the room and furniture design. It is very important to integrate the microphones and speakers in locations that optimize the voice quality of the system as perceived by the distant participants.

Videoconference systems. Video-based systems (often referred to as “Telepresence”) allow for remote communication, presentations and distance learning functions. Newer Internet-based “virtual meeting” systems add even more tools for collaboration by participants anywhere in the world. The technology choices are becoming more robust. As technologies merge with digital networks, the impact on an organization’s telecommunications infrastructure becomes a critical consideration. Each technology system has an impact on the group dynamics and protocols that occur during a meeting. These subtleties are important factors in choosing the right system.

Selecting the right collaboration system for a client is more than just choosing equipment. It takes careful analysis. A technology vision (what are the possibilities) and technology benchmarking (what have other’s done already) help establish a viable program. System options, facilities design, and implementation management are all equally important in ensuring the result will be an easy-to-use and effective tool, and not a complicated and expensive white elephant.

The Impact of Collaboration

Regardless of the meeting type, technology can enable effective group collaboration between local, regional, or far-distant participants. The processes of equipment selection, room configuration, procurement, installation, training, content development, and user orientation, requires careful study, planning and logistics management, independent of application or service provider.

All modern organizations—whether business, education, institutional, or governmental—have similar overreaching collaboration issues. They strive to develop strategies that anticipate the impact of the marketplace, competition, or internal processes. Technology is at the center of those strategies. The ability for organizations to collaborate and share vital knowledge benefits
all aspects of operations, from communication to distribution to the delivery of key data.

Understanding the potential, options, and logistical issues for a technology-enhanced meeting leads to successful implementations, reduced travel, improved productivity and engagement, and the implicit benefits of cost reductions, and improved quality of life for all of the participants.

Technology-Enabled Collaboration

For those planning new or renovated collaboration spaces, design issues of ergonomics, lighting, acoustics, audiovisual systems, operational software, information technology, and telecommunications infrastructure to have all become critical to the ultimate success of the project.

In an era when the economies and logistics of travel have become more difficult, multimedia conferencing technology provides an appropriate and cost effective tool for collaboration and information exchange between individuals and groups.

There is little doubt that the demand and application of these systems will increase. As with any effective communication process, early and thorough needs and applications analysis is the key to the successful development of a technology-enabled collaboration facility.

Confucius’ terse advice would be very much at home in the world of Twitter. One virtual tweet from over two millennia ago to consider is “Ability will never catch up with the demand for it.”


About the Author
Craig Park FSMPS, Assoc. AIA, is a principal with The Sextant Group, and is based in Omaha, Nebraska. Trained as an architect, Craig has practiced as an AV consultant for more than 25 years.