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Business travel bugbears

Technology can eliminate travel time

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"Meetings, bloody meetings" - somehow the 1970s John Cleese management video appears even more relevant to business life today.

While most workers have many forms of communication available, with the phone and email now the primary means for remote communication, there's nothing quite like a meeting to get the full emotion, meaning, and immediacy of the interaction, especially where several participants need to be involved. And nothing like a meeting to really waste a lot of time either.

With organisations becoming widely dispersed, and more employees working with colleagues and external contacts in increasingly remote locations, the need for business communication is growing, with a consequent impact on business travel. Even if you're one of the lucky few for whom business travel means "business class", there are many challenges facing the frequent business traveller, not least the fact that - despite, or perhaps due to advances in technology - they are rarely out of contact while travelling.

While driving, improved vehicle technology helps with many of the driving functions. Satellite navigation systems mean you can take your mind off working out the route for yourself and, within legal constraints, the mobile phone can provide a degree of contact.

However, few of these tools really boost concentration on driving - and can lead to serious distraction, not only mobile phone users, but also those who hover and dither at junctions waiting for guidance from a little screen on their dashboard. In any event, any thought about work is more likely to be vying for attention alongside a CD or radio station.

Rail travel does much to support work on the move, encouraging mobile communications - "Hello, I'm on the train" - and providing some facilities for laptop users. This varies across countries and rail operators. In the UK many trains are over crowded, seats are not guaranteed, and provision for power and wireless network access is patchy. Some train operators offer Wi-Fi on certain services and it is available at many stations, but the availability of high speed cellular data (sometimes voice) along the paths of even commuter trains is very variable.

Elsewhere in Europe, more frequency of reserved seats, and better space in trains like the French TGV adds to the comfort, but again the network and power availability is still patchy.

Flying can provide a similar experience to the train for the business traveller - waiting around to board, seat back tray tables for the small laptop user and plenty of seating without having to personally direct the mode of transport are benefits for both flying and rail travel. There has been much discussion about IT and communications aboard aircraft, but security and costs have dampened enthusiasm, perhaps alongside the wishes of many of those flying on business to have a quiet trip.

Increasing horsepower, brighter screens, and the plethora of radio networks for connection - BlueTooth, Wi-Fi and cellular - means more drain on the battery, and while some vendors are having some success addressing this through power management, finding power while travelling is harder than finding a network connection. Some train and airline seats will offer a socket but, the cheaper the ticket, the less likelihood of power provision.

Even at the destination, international travel brings another familiar set of challenges for the use of IT and communications technology - power and network. The first problem is the range of adapters necessary. Thankfully in many international locations an Ethernet or wireless connection is available, obviating the need to carry the bewildering collection of oversized telecoms connectors, but the real problem is power.

The plug-to-socket adapter and even voltage differences at the mains socket end are now pretty well fixed, so all the industry brains need to address now is the connection into the mobile device. If you have a digital camera, MP3 player, laptop and mobile phone, the chances are you'll have a power adapter for each one. No wonder some pundits believe in the universal single device to do everything - it might not be sufficiently useable for each function, but it will drastically reduce the need to carry power cables and connectors.

So have we really made productive use of that travel time to the meetings we thought were vital? Probably not, and the individual employee gets there feeling drained and tired, so is unlikely to be operating at full potential. All the glamour has disappeared from the experience - low cost carriers and affluence to thank for that - and employers won't want their employees to be wasting even more time extending their trips with expensive entertainment. It's no longer fun, and it might not even be very productive.

What is the alternative to travelling to all these remote meetings? Don't travel in person, use the technology more effectively. Using the phone (fixed and mobile), email, messaging etc to their full potential is a start, but investing in collaborative technology - web conferencing, file sharing and video conferencing - should come higher up the strategic planning for many more organisations.

This means tools to share information images and sound in real time - document sharing and visual communications like video conferencing. Why? Because we all know how unproductive too much travelling back and forth to meetings can be, and according to recent Quocirca research those organisations who have invested in collaborative conferencing solutions realise the main benefit is increased productivity, not just the travel cost savings they were expecting.

Although given the increasing cost of travel on individual, organisation and the environment, that's not a bad reason either. The question "is your journey necessary?" should be broadened to "is it the best way to spend precious resources - fuel, budget and perhaps the most valuable of all, time?"

A more detailed exploration of the impact and use of video in communications is freely available in the Quocirca report: Visual Impact - the emerging face of business collaboration.

Copyright © 2007, Quocirca

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