In China, whose culture places a high value on trust and respect, videoconferencing is enabling companies to conduct business without forgoing traditions.
Videoconferencing allows banks to avoid the time and expense of bringing representatives from each province to Beijing, a relatively common practice. "The average meeting, if there is such a thing, has 4.8 people here in the U.S.," said Leo Cortjens, vice president and general manager of Asia-Pacific operations for Polycom, a Pleasanton, Calif.-based videoconferencing vendor. "In China, it's more like 20. It's much more of a hierarchical management system than we have here."
"But you can only have so many face-to-face meetings," he said. "With videoconferencing, you have the opportunity to see the people you've already met, and it's a richer experience."
China Construction Bank, the third-largest commercial bank in China, has deployed videoconferencing technology from Polycom. The move is partly intended to help capitalize on China's accession to the World Trade Organization. "With WTO in place, the banks now have to be competitive not just at the national level, but more in the international setting," said Cortjens.
Some of videoconferencing's advantages are hard to quantify. "You can actually look people in the eye, which is very important in that part of the world," said Cortjens. "How you react to a question is sometimes more important than the actual answer you give to the question."
It's also a good way to drive home a consistent message, whether on market strategy or compliance initiatives. "Getting the quality message out is clearly a priority, and you can't necessarily do that by e-mail only," said Cortjens. "For the 'top guys,' as they call them, to get the message out and to be able to be heard and seen by everybody at the same time is very important."
The logistics of arranging a call are fairly simple. "You pick up a remote control, similar to a TV remote but with fewer buttons, and a menu shows up," said Cortjens. "You can choose the locations you want to communicate with, push a button and it'll connect you."
Flexible meeting options help to create the sensation of an actual get-together. By default, the image of the person speaking appears on screen. But it's also possible to divide the screen into nine panels a la The Brady Bunch, each containing a video image from a separate location. In either mode, the "chairman control" feature allows an operator to determine which cameras are active; otherwise, the most recent speakers would appear.
Side meetings are another popular feature, especially when it's necessary for some participants to come up with a quick answer to a question raised in the general meeting. "You can take two or three people and put them into a side conference where they're completely isolated from the rest of the group," said Cortjens. "It happens quite a bit."
The state-owned China Construction Bank offers retail and commercial banking services to a increasingly discerning customer base. "The business climate is changing very rapidly in China," said Cortjens. "As the middle class gets more money, they're requiring more services, and the banks need to provide them."
New products, including charge cards, ATMs and electronic money transfers, are taking hold in China. The rollout of tried and tested retail delivery technology gives China's banks the opportunity to plan a full-service retail delivery infrastructure, on par with that developed in the U.S. over the course of decades.
What's more, China's telecom infrastructure supports the banks' ambitious plans. Videoconferencing typically requires high-speed access to a fiber-optic backbone, and that's available in the central cities in each province. "Certainly with some planning, you can get it in those places where you need it," said Cortjens.