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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  1. #1 by Veit - July 22nd, 2009 at 22:37

    As the author of the blog post at http://flymiwokblog.com, I’ve had a number of good meetings similarly to the ones you described. However, I experienced so many horrible meetings that I felt compelled to write this blog post.

    I don’t want to knock technology per se. Over the last years, technology has much improved and the variety of technology has increased beyond my personal expectation. Today we happily use a variety of all the technologies and services that you mentioned in your comment to our post. The less complex the set-up (not just technically, but people being in the right places, having access to good-quality communication with little background noise) the more satisfactory the outcome typically is.

    More often, it’s the people that are at the center of the problem. Many are willing and stick to the “rules”, but some are just rude and do not care that they disrupt meetings and how they do so; or are simply oblivious to the consequences of their actions.

    Technology often helped me when presenting to a large number of people, such as in trainings and webinars (typically through shared access to media and concierge services). Where it broke down was in highly interactive meetings where business decisions were made. Decision makers were frequently on-the-go while “calling in” for a meeting, thus not having access to materials and having a hard time following along. Co-Presenters were driving to their next customer appointments while trying to influence business decisions; you can probably predict the outcome. Stakeholders paid the usual “constant partial attention” to the proceedings of the meeting. In fact, as the stress of our daily lives increased, so was participation via just the telephone, so one could put the call on hold and listen in while “multi-tasking”.

    All of this might be either a sign of our times, just bad manners by some or the lack of discipline in certain organizations. But it’s very real. Technology cannot overcome this. Depending on your role in these group meetings, technology might make your life easier. Or might force you on the road, to be in the room with the decision makers to ensure that everything goes according to plan. At least as much as you can influence it.

  2. #2 by Roger Farnsworth - July 22nd, 2009 at 23:46

    Great comments. Thanks.

    I agree that the ultimate answer is not technology, per se, but the evolution of behavior and culture to take advantage of the technology. To that point, someone who would exert the energy to travel but can not make the necessary preparations to successfully collaborate electronically has a clear opportunity to evolve. I believe that that workers who make these behavioral changes will be very valuable assets – travel is unlikely to become cheaper, easier, or more environmentally friendly any time soon! (Although the solutions offered by FlyMiwok are undoubtedly superior.)

    Thanks again for the discourse! Next time let’s use video! :-)

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