CXO

Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Why do we still travel?

IT has failed us...

Given all the advances in communications technology, shouldn't we be able to videoconference and telecommute instead of showing up in person? Peter Cochrane explains why this is not the case.

It is a very early Sunday morning at London Heathrow Terminal 3 and I am about to board the earliest flight to Washington, DC, available out of the UK. This has been a manic morning, to get here on time I had to wake up at 03:50 to be on the road by 04:30. In fact the entire week has been manic, spent on trains to London, in my car to Cambridge and beyond, and on the move every day.

Why am I travelling so much? Wasn't technology supposed to lessen the need for physical travel? Shouldn't I be teleported at will by videoconferencing and telepresence technologies?

Seems to me IT should ruin the travel industry like the PC could bring about the paperless office - but people still travel and offices still use paper.

Could it be we actually like to travel or is there some other more complex reason?

As a professional traveller I am pretty sure the only people who like to travel are those that don't do it often - and I mean the amateurs, the tourists. I don't know any regular business travellers who enjoy being away from home, sleeping in yet another hotel or going to a restaurant for yet another lonely meal. Nor do I know anyone who enjoys the experience of transiting from one location to another by car, train or airplane. So it really does beg the question: why do we do it at all?

On one level, travelling appears to be our natural inclination. Our species is inherently prone to communicate, seek out and discover. Just advertise a location, facility or vacation destination, and - bingo - tourists are on the first flight out. Who could refuse an enriching experience vacationing in Spain, the Caribbean or Australia if they could afford it?

On another level, travel has always been necessary to facilitate business and commerce. Even when we only had horses and sailing ships there were professional travellers. If you wanted to do a deal you had to go look the customer in the eye, press the flesh and sign on the dotted line. That is exactly what we do today - only much faster, far more often and across an increasingly broad range of goods and services.

Travelling over 200,000 miles a year is no longer exceptional in the international business community. The question is: is it really necessary? It would appear it is as our IT simply doesn't cut the mustard.

Sure videoconferencing is OK if everybody knows each other (and pretty awful if they don't) but you ain't going to fall in love on it. IT strips off the emotional bits of communication - and thus is useless when you get to the bottom line of deal making: deciding you can trust someone, negotiating and agreeing on terms.

That is not to say IT doesn't allow us to do a lot; it plainly does. It has transformed business in a way no one could have guessed 20 years ago. We now do more deals and invoke change at a rate we have never seen before. Exponential technology growth has led to exponential production, rapid price reductions and universal availability. These factors alone are sufficient to increase professional travel. But there is another factor here, too: We have also globalised business to the point where no one country or company is self-sufficient for resources or markets.

It is the rise of commercial and operational complexity that is the fundamental reason professionals travel so much. Without a considerable hike in our IT communications capabilities, I cannot see how we are going to be able to significantly reduce our business travel; in fact it might even get worse.

What went wrong with the dream of the paperless office? Individuals and companies did the dumbest of things. They simply replicated all their paper business processes on the screen and then found they still needed paper copies because the screen does not give the same resolution, contrast ratio and functional flexibility of paper. Some business leaders have recognised this and reengineered their businesses in line with the capabilities of IT. But most are getting there by increments - a series of painful and expensive steps that will ultimately see the demise of paper.

So how about travel? Well, we just haven't spent the time, money and effort to create the IT tools and systems that would allow us to sideline physical travel. My guess is that it will probably take another 15 to 20 years before we see this achieved.

You must also remember that low-cost, universally available travel is a recent phenomenon with a history of 50 or so years. It was facilitated by the development of roads and airports combined with standards of living that generate sufficient free capital. Until recently business travel was severely restricted - more or less contained within a country or continent - largely because of cost.

Of course, if we do not solve the growing energy crisis, we will ultimately see physical travel curtailed and a return to the static life of 50 years ago. The good news is that if that were to happen, IT could fill the gap. We have the technology, we just have to want or need to do it.

Typed in the United Lounge at London Heathrow and on UA923 flying to Washington, DC, for lunch. Completed on US2441 flying to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, for dinner later that same day. Revised on DL829 flying to Atlanta, Georgia, the next day. Despatched to silicon.com from the Georgia Tech Hotel via a free Wi-Fi service. A crazy schedule? No - a business necessity!

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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