Prediction: Video-conferencing will help drive increased business travel


Yesterday I gave the opening keynote at Global Business Travel Association Australia/NZ’s annual conference, on The Future of the Global Economy: The Opportunities.

My keynote focused on the major economic, technological, and social shifts under way and how they impact business travel and how it is managed in organizations.

Clearly a particularly pointed issue in the world of business travel today is the rise of video-conferencing, which many companies in recent years have latched onto as a substitute for travel, largely for cost-saving.

In the first edition of Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships, which came out in 2000, I wrote in the chapter on managing communication portfolios that the ever-improving quality of video-conferencing would be accompanied by increasing business travel.

Video-conferencing is often considered a substitute for face-to-face meetings, but in many cases they are complementary. Both have their role.

There are in fact a number of advances that will take us beyond even the high-bandwidth “telepresence” solutions offered by vendors vendors today.

Back in 2005 I wrote about the quasi-3D Teleportec virtual meeting platform.

As I wrote, one of the critical aspects for immersive video communication is a feeling of eye contact. This can be emulated by embedding cameras in the middle of screens, or more sophisticated approaches.

Tele-Immersion uses the ultra-high bandwidth Internet2 to create the impression of being in the same room, including being able to manipulate objects with your counterparts.

Yet even these technologies will not replace face-to-face meetings. This is partly through the extraordinary richness of cues used in human interaction, ranging from facial muscle micro-ripples to pheromone detection. However probably more important is that a video conference is focused on specific agendas and outcomes, and does not allow for the non-purposeful social exchanges that are fundamental to relationship and trust development.

A great case study is web-based collaboration software company 37signals, which has development teams in its head office in Chicago, and in LA, Stockholm, and Romania. While the company lives off its clients’ distributed project work, and its company guide Getting Real says that “Meetings Are Toxic“, the company invests in flying all its staff in to Chicago 3 times a year for face-to-face meetings and relationship building.

Clearly video-conferencing, in both its quality and its degree of acceptance, is gaining massive uptake across companies, helping to drive the rise of global distributed work that I spend so much of my time researching and practising.

However I stand by my prediction of a dozen years ago, that increased video-conferencing will be accompanied by even more business travel, not less. These twin trends have been largely true thus far, and I believe they will continue to prevail.

The rise of global distributed work will mean that meetings – and the required travel – will be even more important than ever in enabling effective collaboration. Anyone who has used video-conferencing will attest that it is easier to collaborate remotely with people that you have physically spent time with.

I have to acknowledge that this is a fairly risky prediction, and I may be proved wrong. Let’s see whether business travel indeed continues to increase, as I believe it will, in the face of what are now increasingly good alternatives to face-to-face meetings.