P&G finds a green alternative to travel in telepresence

2009 Green 15: Procter & Gamble eliminates 6,000 flights in six months

Long-distance travel is general considered a necessity in the business world, providing employees an opportunity for valuable in-person collaboration with coworkers or customers. Yet business travel can also be downright draining, in many senses of the word. It can be tiring, time-consuming, and costly -- not to mention the impact it has on company's environmental footprint. All those miles spent on the road or in the air represent gallons of fuel burned, filling the air with pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

With 138,000 employees spread out across 80 countries, consumer products giant Procter & Gamble has racked up piles of frequent-flier miles over the years -- all the while padding its carbon footprint. With a renewed committed to sustainability, the company sought a way to reduce travel, without sacrificing the personal connections that develop between people in the boardroom.

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"P&G is constantly looking for efficient ways to use available resources. An area of focus for the company has been to look at more sustainable alternatives to travel," says Laurie Heltsley, director of global business services. "[We also] recognize that fast and effective collaboration is critical to remain competitive in the marketplace. Innovation requires connections. These connections need to be swift, effective, and user-friendly; sometimes the personal dimension is critical, too."

The company found its solution in telepresence, which lets people interact from remote locations, specially designed studios, using life-size, ultra-high-definition video and audio. The company built a total of 43 telepresence studios around the globe in nine months, thus building the largest telepresence network in the world in sites such as Boston, Geneva, Singapore, and Sydney.

[ Learn more about telepresence technology. | InfoWorld investigates: Can your company afford telepresence? ]

P&G's technology of choice was the trio of Cisco TelePresence Systems (CTS), the 1000, 3000, and 3200 models. The CTS 1000 is designed for small groups meetings around a virtual table. The 3000 is aimed at larger group meetings, creating an environment for six people to meet in one location and to be virtually joined by six additional people. The 3200 supports up to 18 participants per room.

The company uses its studios for all types of collaboration. "It has been used to meet with internal colleagues, business partners, suppliers, customers, and recruits," says Heltsley. "We enable business conversations ranging from events to one-on-ones."

Heltsley says that videoconferencing, which is less expensive to deploy than telepresence, wasn't the right fit. "Historically, experience with videoconferencing had been, at best, mixed. Issues of quality and ease of use had led to low user adoption," she said. "Telepresence ... is a high-tech way of making technology almost invisible in the context of the conversations it enables."

Beyond its costs, building a large, bandwidth-intensive telepresence network that spans the globe is a complicated endeavor. In each city, the company had to deal with multiple vendors, along with an array of facilities, finance, and installation teams. It also required integration of disparate technology and systems, as well as integration into the work routine of thousands of employees spread out around the world.

Then there was the task of educating users on how to implement the technology and encouraging them to work with it. "To get users to embrace this technology and encourage adoption, we hosted key individual and leader one-on-ones, provided facilitated experiences early with business teams, and held open houses to showcase the technology for the general employee population," says Heltsley.

Procter & Gamble declares that the resources and time invested in its telepresence network were well spent. Over six months, the company avoided more than 6,000 international flights, the equivalent of taking more than 3,000 cars off of the road for an entire year. Moreover, the company says that it has saved millions in travel costs -- and it expects to see more savings as more studios are added and video-enabled collaboration tools become embedded in business practices.

Moreover, Heltsley says that the systems has been a hit with travel-weary employees, freeing up time to be more productive at work, as well enjoy improved work-life balance. The company also reports that the studios have helped to reduce decision-making cycles significantly: Teams can make decisions in minutes instead of days.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.