Why hasn’t video-conferencing hit business travel for six, especially since the GFC? After decades of development in the software, the hardware and the networks, and with better bandwidth, why do we keep flying around to see each other? The technology has improved. The communication experience is much more nuanced. The lags, the shakes and the dropouts are almost completely gone. The costs are falling. So what are all those business people doing in hotels and airports? Isn’t the environment an ever bigger issue? Isn’t traveller safety a growing problem?
How many times when you get on a plane are you at least a little uncertain or concerned about the outcome of your business trip? What will people say? What will they do? How will you perform? Do you know your stuff? What is the possible gain or loss for the company, and more importantly, for yourself?
I would say that in probably the majority of cases, the outcomes are at least a little uncertain and important, and this is why you want to be there in person. Be it a sales call, a service call, an interview, or even an internal meeting or a training session, if the outcome matters you think it requires physical contact. I think that this is why we still travel so much for business.
It turns out that even with excellent video-conferencing set-ups, enough of the human nuance is lost to put outcomes too much at risk. And in a competitive world where you are competing with other firms and even with colleagues, face-to-face interaction is too strong an advantage to easily surrender.
Then there is the issue of meeting quality. Try attending to your personal emails on your phone in a video-conference. With a little caution…easy peasy. Now do it in an actual meeting with the CFO sitting next to you. I dare you.
There are a few structural things that work against the introduction of video-conferencing. There is of course an establishment cost which can be substantial. You have to be pretty certain of its usage and effectiveness.
Better quality video-conferences that compete with travel typically still require elaborate centralised resources. If your staff and customers are dispersed, this is a problem. If people have to travel to the video-conference, it sort of defeats the purpose.
Also, high-end video-conferencing needs both parties to have the facilities. Facilities that go close to replicating physical meetings are expensive. In many cases, the people you need to meet won’t have the gear. This is why many higher quality video-conferences are internal meetings that possibly wouldn’t have necessitated travel anyway.
Companies that have video-conference systems then also need a good process to instruct or direct the user to the correct option; travel or conference. To be effective, the process needs to be sophisticated and preferably online and automated. There are more video-conference kits out there than there are good ways to use them.
I think that we travel too often. I think that the return on travel is over-estimated because it is too personal and hard to measure. I think that video-conference systems are good and always getting better. But the perceived value of personal contact is a hard habit to break.
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