Rant: Techies killed the conference call

Having written about technology for longer than I care to disclose, it has long struck me that one of the ripe ironies of the business is the collective industry’s failure to address usefully that humble form of collaboration, the conference call.

I’ve written in this space before on this topic – splendidly and with mirth-inducing parodic skills, even if I may so myself – and I realise that I am hardly alone in shooting this fish in a barrel. But such is the regularity with which concalls fail it has piqued my intellectual interest. If we can split atoms, sequence genomes, or, more germane, invent the World Wide Web, then why can we not get people to join a call and conduct useful meetings?

Having given the matter some thought, I think I may have cracked it. It’s multiplicity of choice and technologies that’s leading to Concall Calamity (very well, I’ll drop the Comic Capitals).

Conference calls used to work OK. In the 1990s I don’t remember too many problems but then the techies got involved and broke them. One of the first problems was fancy conference calling systems that let you sit around in a group, hands-free. The issue here was twofold. First it enabled desk jockeys to make wiseacre remarks by going on and off the Mute button. Second, it created opportunities for degraded sound quality.

Then there’s email. People started to send out long lists of possible numbers because, as we all know, it’s not enough to have one number to call in on, you need to have a laundry list of options.

Mobile phones didn’t help, leading to awful sound quality, delightful background noise and dropped calls. Then the WiFi gang got their act in gear and added some wah-wah effects together with popping and ambient effects, like a lost Brian Eno tape. Throw in a cast of thousands providing voice over IP software and things got even more complicated. Download this app, make sure you’re not blocking pop-ups. Yada yada, blah, blah, whaaaadever...

User error is partly to blame of course. Invite me to a meeting and then invite me to calculate how my time zone compares to yours. Show up late. Don’t read the agenda. Talk over me. Tap at that keyboard as loudly as you can. But when the last beep has gone, the conference call is an outstanding example of a practice that has been made worse rather than better by technology.


Read also:

The agony of conference calls


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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