Business travel is a necessary, but increasingly surmountable evil

The folks at FlyMiwok wrote an interesting blog post the other day entitled Why Business Travel will not go away that spoke to the pressure that business travel is under. While I agree with the author that business travel is unlikely to become extinct any time soon, I can say with certainty that I am not traveling on business as frequently as I once did, and probably never will.

It wasn’t the raw data in the post that caught my attention however, it was the subjective information presented in three out of four points the author used to make the case.  To wit:

Personal communication tools are great in one-to-one situations and will yield quite some savings there. The same cannot be said for meetings where a dozen or more people from 6 different locations attend.

I disagree.  I was in two very necessary and successful meetings today where participants in China, Colorado, Texas, New York and Israel gathered and very effectively shared content, discussed problems, agreed on solutions and resolved critical business issues.  Telepresence, HD video conferencing and desktop video systems all worked together to connect the remote members of the team in a satisfactory manner.

In this economy, companies are cutting cost as fast as they can. One measure very high on everyone’s list: Cut Office cost. Telecommuting has been encouraged, offices have been downsized. If you watch Cisco’s TelePresence ads, you typically see a conference between people in two offices. However, chances are people are not just in two offices. There’s always someone participating from home or a hotel room, while another person is in an airport with no Wi-Fi access, but lots of background noise instead. In situations like these, audio conferences via telephone is the lowest common denominator.

Here the author seems to suggest that while a person might find a meeting important enough to get up before dawn, schlep to the airport, submit herself to the indignity of security screening, wedge her body into an uncomfortably small seat in a noisy contraption for a ride across several time zones, and then sleep in a strange bed and eat horrible hotel food until it’s time to repeat the previous ordeal, when a similarly important meeting is scheduled the same person can’t be bothered to find a quiet spot with a video connection.  Bzzzzt.

Video conferencing technology has become much easier to use, even while traveling, but the quality can be quite low. Have you ever hosted a teleconference in the U.S, where people from different continents attended at the same time? Some from home, some from the office, some while they were traveling? Even with today’s technology, the results are typically nothing to write home about.

First, while the vagaries of Internet transport still present challenges, I can say from experience that the majority of multipoint meetings that I participate in deliver a perfectly acceptable experience.  Secondly, if the context of the meeting demands special arrangements such as high quality audio, HD video, shared access to media or concierge service, it’s much easier to arrange these details than to demand a group submit to the above mentioned inconveniences.

To be clear, I agree with the author’s last point, that certain things can only be achieved by personally meeting your customers.  And while face to face meetings are likely to remain an important part of the business landscape, I submit that the options available for remote participation are clearly sufficient to permit re-engineering of many horribly inefficient meeting scenarios today.

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High speed Internet? Are you high?

I got a call over the weekend from a telemarketer that wanted me to switch to their “high-speed Internet” service.  He said he could save me a ton of money if I’d just sign up with him.

“How fast is high-speed?” I asked. 

“Up to 3 Mbps,” he replied, smugly. 

Let’s leave aside the hilarity of the “up to” part of his answer and focus instead on the raw speed.  Is 3Mbps fast?  Well sure, compared to dial-up; but seriously, is any serious Internet user still comparing their experience to dial-up?   What can you do with 3Mbps?  And I wonder why he didn’t mention upload speed?

I can’t imagine trying to squeeze all the things I need to do through a soda straw like 3Mbs.  Between the video conferencing, Slingbox media stream, surveillance webcam traffic, ftp uploads, RSS downloads, media downloads, email, messaging, gaming, not to mention the Internet habits of the rest of the folks in the house, it seems to me that the link to my house would be bulging like a worn out garden hose on a hot summer afternoon.

Which brings me to the next bit of gristle in the sandwich – fair access policy (FAP) enforcement.  You see, I’ve played this game a time or two.  I sign up with a service that promises “up to” a certain speed only to find out that they cap the usage of folks who actually need the speed the most.  And the company that called is one of the best at playing Whack-A-Mole with their most demanding users.

So I passed.

Just curious; what kind of broadband speed do you get?  What speed do you need?

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Going old school for valuable lessons

At the risk of betraying my age, I confess that I started shaving with an injector razor.  One of the simple handles into which you jacked a new blade every week or so.  After a brief learning curve, during which time my face sprouted small white squares of toilet paper anchored to various nicks and cuts, I settled into a more or less daily routine that satisfactorily denuded my face.

For decades thereafter I was a willing victim of the personal grooming marketing machine.  I was convinced time and again to upgrade my technology and adopt new standards.  I embraced the convenience of the first cartridge razors, fell for the double bladed “first blade tugs the whisker up while the second one lops it off” animation, and even toyed with triple blade razors for a time.

However, when the 5 bladed razor (6 if you count the obverse-mounted sideburn harvester) came out I finally called BS.  In a fit of nostalgic rebellion I scooped up an old 2-sided safety razor and bought a $2 pack of double edged razor blades at the store.

Do you know what?  It works.  It doesn’t just do a passable job; with a bit of preparation and a appropriate attention to detail the old fashioned razor gives me as good a shave as the flashiest multi-bladed, feature-laden razor at the store.  Maybe better.  And at less than 1/10 the price for refills.  In retrospect, I’ve been a willing victim of technological feature creep.

A multi-bladed razor is just one example of an over the top solution to a simple problem.  We run into this all the time when it comes to computers and technology.  Sometimes we get carried away and do things just because we can.  Feature lists and data sheets are full of “enhancements” that nobody but the most hardened technophile will ever implement.

Don’t be led down the garden path.  Be a technical realist.  Take a look at your daily routine and see if there is a way to simplify.  My guess is that that you’ll find more than one.  You might even think of one while you’re shaving.

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Liar, liar, pants on fire

Remember chanting this on the playground years ago when one of the other kids was caught fibbing?  Or having it chanted at you?  This expression, like another childhood taunt I recently wrote about, is experiencing a nostalgic revival thanks to the social web.

There’s a lot of talk about transparency lately, but I really don’t think it’s sinking in with some companies.  Today, more than ever, it’s important to walk the talk.  Your officers, employees and customers are becoming increasingly well connected every day and the new pervasive connectivity is raising the urgency of keeping your messages honest.

I got another email from one of the unofficial alumni sites the other day.  This one said that I should hurry up and check my profile because someone had just signed my guestbook! Later that day during a quiet period I took a look, and the most recent addition to my guest book was over 4 months old.  For the alumni site, it’s the old good news/bad news routine.  The good news for them is that I did visit the site and increase their traffic.  The bad news is I’m not falling for their crap again.

If you’re a large company, it’s probably not a good idea to claim the green high ground by saying you’ve eliminated business travel when you have hundreds of employees tweeting their actual travel plans.  A smaller company would do well to proactively disclose limitations before their consumers do so.  You see, transparency can be expensive when it’s sudden and unanticipated; however, if you invest in your processes and employees, transparency is not only free, it will actually pay dividends.

It should come as no surprise that your business is subject to unprecedented scrutiny.  Do not fear that, embrace it.  Understand your purpose, your differentiation and your goals and take every opportunity to teach and reinforce them.  Create an atmosphere of integrity and trust at all levels of the organisation.  If you are pure of heart and realistic in your claims, empowering your employees and customers to openly communicate will create not destroy loyalty, and loyalty is an extremely precious commodity.

Do you agree?

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It’s all in the demo

Seriously.  It’s all in the demo.  As in, there’s nothing but the demo.  As in, this demo is as close as the customer will ever get to this technology.

A lot of companies put a huge amount of effort into their technology demos.  You know the demos I mean.  The keynote that turns into a Broadway production as the wraps are taken off the latest technology is one.  Another will show up at the product theater on the show floor and relies on Radio Shack power amps overdriving tinny speakers in a futile attempt to drown out the techno music pounding from the surrounding booths.

They feature towering racks of blinking lights, flashy graphics and summer stock graphics beamed to huge theater screens and rely on scripted exhortations of such breathless, pure adrenalised bitwhacking that their promises that “this technology will change everything by redefining some critical part of the business to unlock amazing potential!” seem almost believable.  I saw a presenter a couple of weeks ago that made Vince the ShamWOW guy look like he’s on tranquilizers.

These demos seem to sprout like weeds in the spring when trade show season rolls around.  It behooves all of us to bring a pair of reality goggles when attending these shows in order to see through the glossy epidemic of Power Point driven optimism.

Here’s a helpful tip to technology vendors.  While people will be suitably amazed by demonstrations of what you can do, they will be more impressed if you can also show them why and how they should do it.  Demonstrations that incorporate utility as well as technology are much more valuable as influencers.  You must close the loop between the possible and the potential; you can’t rely on the prospect to make that leap.  And unless you do, staring at you from the show floor is as close as they are going to get to being a customer.

By the way, automakers, I’m still waiting for my personal rocket car.

What’s the silliest or flashiest demo you’ve seen this season?

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Being heard above the herd

Anyone who has spent time around cattle knows the sound.  The herd lets out quiet moos as they move along in order to reassure each other.  The constant lowing serves as an affirmation to the group that things are going fine and there’s nothing to be alarmed about.

Next time you’re in a functional meeting at work, listen to the tone of the team.  Chances are you’ll hear the same monotonous stream of affirmation, only in the human tongue.

“Great idea.  Still making progress.  Should have those numbers by Friday.  Got the room booked and the speaker set.  That’s a great message, let’s get the slides finished.  Mooooo.”

How do you make yourself heard above the herd?

First, unless you want to start a stampede, it’s best not to be an alarmist.  To be clear, there might be times when a good, old-fashioned scream is called for, but those times are few and far between.  It’s much more likely that a carefully reasoned appeal to the group will result in action more appropriate than getting everyone overturning their chairs and clawing for the exit.

As with most forms of communication, content is king.  Don’t talk just to be heard; have something useful to add when you speak out.  Give careful thought to your contributions and frame them in a logical way.  Present your comments in a complementary way.  Affirm progress while providing legitimate incremental value.

And here’s an important but often overlooked point.  Always attempt to provide the group a way forward — don’t just toss out objections, no matter how valid.  Trapped cattle react unpredictably and you don’t want to get trampled.  My boss used to say, “Don’t come to me with a problem unless you have a suggestion to solve it.”  Good advice.

Collaborators move in herds.  Figure out how to keep your contributions positive and valuable and you will raise not only your collaborative quotient, but that of the entire team.

And you might just win a blue ribbon at the state fair to boot.

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More news – less crews – slanted views?

Competition from online and always-on sources and increased economic pressure are resulting in fast changes in the local television news model.  While staff is being cut at a rapid rate, including both production crews and on-air personalities, the amount of programming is increasing.  Although the trend was apparent late last year, as more and more content moved from investigative and on-scene reporting to in-studio talking heads and superimposed file photography, an AP article today details the extent of the atrophy the news crews have suffered.

Apparently, even though viewership and advertising rates are declining, it’s cheaper to package a local news show than it is to purchase syndicated content, so the local stations squeeze more product from fewer resources.

What does that mean to us?  First, as the budgets and crews get cut, the stations have to rely more heavily on aggregated content.  This means an elimination of variety as the source for stories moves higher in the distribution chain.  You may see this manifested as a local broadcast that is tied much more closely to the national “talking points” that the other media outlets are following.

The other component to this is the encouragement the remaining on-air teams are being given to open up and add their personalities to the program.  While it’s intended to be engaging, the result is a broadcast that is much heavier on opinion and commentary than factual reporting.

Pay attention to what is happening in your local area.  If you’re one of the shrinking number of folks that gets your daily news from a local news telecast, a decrease in aggregate variety coupled with an incremental erosion of impartiality could be changing your world view.

Have you noticed a subtle change in your local news broadcast?

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Facebook isn’t all bad

In my last post I lamented the commercial turn that social sites like Facebook have taken.  I wanted to clarify a couple of points and then make an observation.

First, I sort of indicted all social media with my generalised comments.  What I was specifically referring to is people who use their personal accounts exclusively to bombard their friends and connections with work-related spam.

Want to fill the airwaves at Facebook with your latest white paper or YouTube ad?  Fine.  Create a commercial ID or group that relates to your work and have at it.  But by using your personal account you make it hard for folks like me who care about you to follow along.  I’m not going to work to filter your noise, I’m just going to bounce you.

Second, I was not referring to Twitter when I made my observation.  Twitter is unique.  You have to work really hard to screw up a friendship in 140 character chunks.

And lastly, the Facebook world might be developing a signal to noise ratio that approaches a late 70s CB radio, but I’ll put up with a lot of static to get the occasional connection.  In the past week I’ve heard from a couple of folks who were all but lost to me, and just seeing their words again made me smile wider than the grand canyon.

Has Facebook made you smile lately?  When?

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It’s too bad my friends have jobs

A not-so-subtle and disturbing trend is accelerating in social networking.  The circle of friends with which I surrounded myself is going corporate.  Probably because of my 20 years in marketing, my social network is weighted heavily in that dimension.  Still, it seems that lately four out of five Facebook updates are suddenly pimping work related projects, and the other one is a “What famous 19th century impressionist painter are you?” worm.  The personal contact that I sought when I signed up for the services has been shoved from the stage.  I can’t really blame my friends, they are, after all, marketers and it’s easy to get drunk on the possibilities of social buzz.

Here’s what I predict will happen.  First, more and more of my contacts will be tipped into the ignore bin as they continue to abuse our relationship by foisting their marketing pitches on me using clever URL truncators.  The sphere of personal contacts I maintain will slowly return to the more normal sustainable levels that existed before the wonder of MySpace and Facebook artificially inflated it.  The social landscape will soon look like that kaleidoscopic stretch of endless, rarely clever billboards along Highway 101 in Sunnyvale that no one pays attention to. And finally, a new, personal social networking platform will emerge and all the cool folks will rush in to take advantage of the new clean environment before the corporate drones pollute it again.

Note to marketers:  You’re right, it is important to fish where the fish are;  but it’s not a good idea to dump all your trash in the lake, blast loud music, bang on the side of you boat and scare the fish off.  They might just grow legs and walk away.  Evolution happens faster in the digital age.

How’s your social network treating you?

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The importance of passion

There’s an interesting poll on LinkedIn this week that asks what people think is the most important trait a person needs to succeed in their first job.  Looking at well over 5000 responses to the poll, passion is the most popular selection by an overwhelming margin.

There are other attributes that contribute to success, but most agree that without an interest in, and a passion for, the type of work you do the rest of the attributes are likely to be underutilised.

Interestingly, the poll results are consistent across demographics with respondents from all ages, genders, company size and titles agreeing on the paramount importance of passion.

One thing that sticks out is that respondents in the consulting and sales functions place an even higher importance on passion as a key criteria for success.  Both of those functions rely heavily on influence and, it seems to me, would benefit from the authenticity that passion brings to the table.

Have you ever experienced the futile efforts of a sales person that didn’t believe in his or her own product?


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