Monday, May 18, 2009

Substituing communication for transportation -- can we reduce business travel?

My son-in-law Mark flew from Los Angeles to Seattle last Thursday for a job interview. The round trip air fare plus four cab rides cost $619. He had a long day, getting up at 4 AM to catch an early flight, and was not home until early evening. If he had stayed over in Seattle, the a hotel room and meals would have brought the cost close to $1,000.

Three people interviewed Mark, and he feels that a teleconference would have been as effective as flying up for face-to-face interviews.

Ten years ago, I conducted a study of business travel at Hyundai, USA. Nineteen employees monitored their travel for three weeks, identifying trips which could have been avoided if various communication alternatives had been available. Based upon that data, we estimated savings of 3.6 hours and $298.07 per employee per week.

In the ensuing ten years, the cost of travel has risen somewhat and the cost of communication has dropped dramatically. Why did they fly Mark to Seattle rather than conduct a teleconference?

The standard answer is that information is lost in a teleconference -- you don't get the same feelings and subtle clues as when you meet someone face-to-face.

If you have any doubt that a teleconference can convey emotion, watch this excerpt from A Hole is Space, showing clips from a two-way video link between people in New York and Los Angeles in 1980. A Hole in Space was not a business installation, but performance art anticipating today's emerging high-speed connectivity.

A high bandwidth teleconference can convey emotion, but that is not widely accepted in our culture -- yet. But, my grandson has grown up making Skype video calls to his relatives in Chile. By the time he starts high school, he will be video chatting on his mobile Internet-access device. Will a teleconference seem emotionless or unusual to him when he joins the workforce?

Have you done video chats or conferences? If so, was it as effective as talking face-to-face? Would the experience have improved if you had a very powerful computer and very fast connection to the Internet? What are the economic and environmental implications of substituting communication for transportation?