Collaboration is at the center of some of man’s most impressive achievements, even being responsible for a couple wonders of the world, but collaboration itself has evolved greatly over time. The way teams manage their projects and meetings is far different than the way it was done just a few decades ago, and modern conferencing technology would seem like science fiction to people living in the early 20th century. And the speed at which collaboration technology is improving is increasing all the time, with video conferencing options that can link people from all over the world.
Just how far has collaboration and conferencing technology come over the centuries? For millennia, collaboration was rarely done in a formal setting, but starting with the Industrial Revolution, the idea of cooperating for a common business goal became essential for company success. And while it’s impossible to get to every small advancement in the field, there is still plenty to consider when looking at the big picture of conferencing and collaboration.
Conferencing, in a Nutshell
Just when humans starting coming together to complete big projects, no one knows for sure. What historians do know is that it is a defining part of man’s heritage. And that heritage goes back a long, long way. How long? Here’s a brief snapshot into collaboration and conferencing:
- Approximately 3 million years ago – Remains of early hominids (Australopithecus afarensis, to be precise) show little difference in size between male and female members of the species. According to researchers, this is a strong indication of cooperation between males, as size was not a defining trait of this species. We can imagine our ancestors sitting around a fire and forming a plan for the next day. This cooperation would help Australopithecus avoid predators and capture prey successfully.
It’s fair to say, then, that cooperation is in our genes. At first, it operated only at small scales, such as groups of hunters working together. Eventually, though, it would be essential to producing some of man’s greatest achievements, including the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Great Wall of China, with collaboration efforts being essential for success.
- 2570 BC – The Great Pyramid of Giza is completed around this time. It was an impressive enough feat at the time, but even more impressive when considering that it only took around 20 years to build what is now considered the oldest wonder of the world. While there are many theories about how the pyramid was constructed, historians do know that each side of the pyramid was assigned to a different team, which drew up the architectural plans to an amazingly precise degree. As the project wore on, teams would communicate with each other and compare plans to ensure there would be no structural faults with the pyramid upon completion. For a building consisting of 2.3 million massive stone blocks, that level of detail and collaboration was quite important.
- Around 220 BC – The Great Wall of China, another enduring wonder of the world, is begun during the rule of Qin Shi Huang. Though most of the early wall no longer exists, it was an incredible feat of project management, planning and cooperation at the time. According to historical records, the job was divided up according to different social classes, with soldiers, commoners and criminals each assigned to particular duties.
- July 1 – July 4, 1776 – The Second Continental Congress meets to review and ratify Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. It wasn’t an open and shut affair, as even after 12 of the 13 original colonies approved of the founding document, the delegates debated over its language for the next two days before signing it on July 4. For many historians, the Second Continental Congress represents the first internal political debates in the U.S., as a sovereign nation.
Until the 19th century, collaboration was only possible when all team members were present in the same space. This naturally limited the capabilities of collaboration, which is why technology is often seen as the crux of modern cooperative ventures. Communications technology is practically brand new, given man’s lengthy history, and it started taking off in the late 19th century.
- March 10, 1876 – The first message delivered via telephone is made by Alexander Graham Bell, who is considered by most to be the device’s inventor. During the brief call, Bell stated “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” The Mr. Watson in this instance was Bell’s assistant, and he was in another room. The telephone, of course, was a massively important step in communications, and some even consider the first call to also be the first conference call in existence, as many people were in attendance while Bell was on the phone.
- January 25, 1915 – Bell again made history when he made the first transcontinental phone call (again to his assistant Watson). Bell was in New York and Watson in San Francisco during the call, which was open to the public. Executing the first transcontinental call required multiple feats of engineering, as a copper circuit nearly 7,000 miles long needed to be laid between the two cities, along with numerous poles and switchboards. It took 10 minutes to connect the call, and after Bell was done, it was made available to the public for a cost of $20.70 (or $485 in today’s dollars) per three-minute call.
Although technology is an inextricable part of collaboration, modern management and corporate communication techniques are also essential to ensuring cooperation between team members. In the middle of the 20th century, many of the same corporate communication techniques still in place today were developed.
- Early 1950s – Modern project management takes hold in the business world, using a number of techniques developed in the early 20th century to improve collaboration and teamwork. In these early meeting rooms, team leaders executed a deeper level of planning, including using Gantt charts (named after Henry Gantt, the father of project management). Gantt charts used simple graphics to illustrate every step of the project, who was responsible for it, its intended completion date and its current status. More than 50 years later, Gantt’s work is still being used, just adapted for the digital age.
Conferencing technology also began to emerge, albeit in an expensive and impractical form, in the middle of the 20th century, paving the way for the conferencing methods still in place at businesses around the world.
- 1956 – Bell Labs starts putting together its first audio conferencing prototypes. On September 25 of the same year, the first transatlantic phone call is made between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Like the first transcontinental phone call, installing the transatlantic phone circuit was no easy feat, requiring a number of developments to make subsea cable applications possible. Thirty circuits were connected to the U.S. and six to Canada. Most were connected directly to London, though some were directed through London to mainland Europe. At the time, this development was heralded as the dawn of the modern age of global communications.
- 1964 – The first videoconferencing phone was introduced at the New York World’s fair. Created by Bell Labs and dubbed the Picturephone, it was capable of transmitting a video signal across the U.S., and was universally praised for its call and picture quality. However, the technology was still limited, and calls were expensive, both in time and money. As a result, the Picturephone never reached commercial success, though it was the beginning of interesting research in the field.
For decades, conferencing was only a novelty, a gimmick that the rich and powerful could afford. And if only a select few can engage in conferencing, it’s not all that useful. But Moore’s Law (an observation made by Gordon Moore which stated that transistor density on processing circuitry would double every year – and therefore computing power would improve exponentially) showed that conferencing could be the purview of every company, regardless of size of scope.
- 1984 – Concept Communications propels teleconferencing technology forward by greatly reducing the cost and size of the circuitry required. At the time, teleconferencing required $100,000 computers that weighed 100 pounds each. Concept’s changes reduced the circuitry cost to $12,000, downsized it so that it could fit in a PC, and increased the available video framerate from 15 frames per second to 30. Unsurprisingly, commercial videoconferencing options would soon enter the market in force.
Polycom was founded in 1990 by Brian Hinman and Jeffrey Rodman, and like many of the world’s great tech startups, it was founded in a basement. Both Hinman and Rodman were founding members of PictureTel, which was the first to introduce video conferencing to enterprise applications.
- 1992 – Polycom reveals its SoundStation audio conferencing technology, praised for its excellent call quality, interesting form factor and ease of use. The following year, the American Bar Association recognized the SoundStation for its ability to filter out background noise from the microphone, a condition the American Bar termed “Rattled Paper Syndrome.”
- 1993 – Videoconferencing solutions first made their mark in schools. In 1993, CU-SeeMe was set up in schools around the country, and gave students a chance to communicate from thousands of miles away. The technology ran at a paltry 3-9 frames per second, but drew strong reviews from teachers and their students.
The internet, like it has in many industries, had (and continues to have) and enormous impact on collaboration and communication technologies. With the rise of the internet, group and video calling became feasible for people working at their desks and for younger people chatting over instant messaging applications. Many popular conferencing applications are still primarily managed through web browsers.
- 1995 – VocalTec is the first company to offer internet calling services, or Voice over Internet Protocol technology. VoIP is a lynchpin in future teleconferencing advancements, and the founder of VocalTec, Alon Cohen, would receive the VoIP Visionary Award in 2005 for his genius.
- Early 2000s – Multiple web-based videoconferencing platforms become popular with the turn of the new millennium, allowing teams to communicate with each other from remote locations. Software like Skype, which remains the largest platform still, made it easy for people to see and hear each other from the comfort of their computers. Eventually, Skype and others would take their technology to the mobile world, where it remains a popular form of peer to peer communication.
- 2006 – Polycom unveils its first HD teleconferencing system, becoming one of the first companies to offer high-definition video collaboration options. High-definition video made it possible to see others with a stark level of clarity, making face to face communications feasible, even when those faces were on opposite sides of the globe.
Smartphones are the latest piece of mass-adopted consumer technology to change the way collaboration is done. Their incredible popularity and power does not go unnoticed by communications companies, which adapt many of their collaboration applications for mobile use.
- Early 2010s – With the rise of smartphones, many companies rush mobile conferencing platforms to the market. Mobile teleconferencing makes it possible for professionals to collaborate while in the field, and it becomes an important advancement for people in multiple industries, including the oil & gas industry.
- 2015 – Polycom introduces the Centro, which allows teams to gather around a central hub instead of crowding in front of a single wall of displays. The Centro is designed for comfort, allowing people to establish more space for themselves and interact with individual displays and cameras placed directly in front of them. The concept behind the Centro is that people work better when relaxed and when engaging with a person who is facing them.
The drive to collaborate and cooperate are intrinsic to being human, but how people communicate and what they use to communicate with have changed dramatically in short order. From the bonfire outside a cave to the technology of Centro, even the way people speak has followed the march of progress.