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Budget cuts push conferences online

Apr. 2, 2013 - 10:55AM   |  

Decreasing travel budgets are forcing agencies to conduct more meetings and training seminars online.

The Defense Department, for example, doubled the capacity of its Defense Connect Online system — an internal collaboration tool — this year to accommodate more simultaneous audio and video Web conferencing across the services. DCO’s reach grew to 800,000 registered users in February, which DoD attributes to departmentwide travel and conference spending cuts.

“A year ago, I think there definitely was more of a tendency to have in-person meetings, conduct events in person, and use a tool like [Adobe] Connect to support those people who couldn’t make it,” said Barry Leffew, vice president of public sector for Adobe. DCO is an Adobe product.

“Because of budget cuts, it’s really come down to either not having the event at all or using a tool … to do that,” Leffew said.

The Department of the Navy’s chief information officer will use DCO to offer several sessions of its May information technology conference online.

And the Naval Safety and Environmental Training Center opted last month to host a 1,500-person training conference for the military services online because of budget constraints. Moving the conference online reduced event costs by 50 percent or nearly $100,000. In addition, the services combined saved more than $1 million on travel and per diem costs.

As agencies cut spending under the sequester, there’s a greater need to share information, ideas and best practices, Leffew said. Technology that can connect people virtually is “no longer a nice-to-have but a necessity.”

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted last month to cap agency spending on conferences — at $500,000 per event — and require quarterly reports itemizing travel, lodging, meals and other conference costs. The bill would require agencies to obtain waivers justifying any spending of more than $500,000 for a conference.

The bill also would codify Office of Management and Budget policies instructing agencies to reduce travel spending 30 percent below 2010 levels.

More than 90 percent of attendees rated the Naval Safety and Environmental Training Center’s online conference format last month good or excellent, said Cmdr. Greg Cook, commanding officer of the center.

Initially, however, some were skeptical whether online training would be effective because most of what people have seen online is not active and engaging, he said. Others — including attendees in Guam, Germany and Japan — were optimistic about the online training because travel restrictions otherwise would have prohibited them from participating.

“I agree that doing a conference online is not the same as doing it face to face, but in this use, case [online] training can be just as effective, if not more effective,” Cook said.

Conference attendees didn’t have to lose working hours due to travel, and people were more willing to ask questions during online sessions than they had been at in-person conferences. It’s also easier to find someone at a virtual meeting and connect with them in meeting rooms, Cook said.

However, there are limitations. Hands-on safety training, for example, does not translate well online, and speakers must find creative ways to keep online viewers engaged. There are also bandwidth constraints, especially for sailors trying to access training from a ship.

But that hasn’t stopped the training center from exploring more online conferences and training classes.

“Instead of passively sitting here and saying we will not be able to do training … we are aggressively looking for opportunities to do training,” Cook said.

Federal contractors are also moving more of their internal business meetings online.

Over the past six years, Cisco has saved more than $1 billion — mostly on airfare and hotel charges — by using the company’s telepresence technology to host meetings.

At Citrix, a handful of employees used to travel to the company’s Bethesda, Md., office for quarterly business meetings. Those meetings are now webcast online, and virtual participants interact via webcam.

“We are moving to more … of an online-first kind of a concept,” said Tom Simmons, vice president for Citrix public sector unit.

Some agencies are warming to the idea of conducting initial vendor meetings online, but many agencies want to meet contractors in person, Simmons said.

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