Sunday, 22 February 2009

Is all this business travel really necessary ?

(photo courtesy Businessweek)

Every business executive these days travels like crazy. In the "flat" world of today, its usually long distances across countries. Is all this really necessary ?

I have myself been guilty of wild travel - one of the reasons I took my sabbatical. My badge of shame includes a gold card from Star Alliance, gold card from Oneworld alliance a Platinum card from Jet Airways, and assorted colour cards for various other independent airlines , all of which I am now delighted to throw into the waste bin. I am much experienced in this area !

Most of the travel is a waste. Any manager, who is honest with himself, will admit it.

The worst reason to travel is a conference. The ones where you have a large group of people listening to somebody lecturing. Two days of absolute torture - the fact that nobody attends every session of the conference and listens intently and fully, is enough to justify that the value of this is questionable. People fight with each other to get invited to conferences and be "seen" and pout if they aren't, for sometimes this is a badge of importance - why not just publish this list of importance and forget the conference ! The only justification for a conference is the socialising or networking that happens during the sidelines. There are now equally effective means of networking, that does not require physical presence - something that I justify lower down.

The largest reason for travel is an internal company meeting. This, in my book, ranks only a shade below a conference in the list of worst reasons to travel. The meeting is usually between people whom you know reasonably well and are your colleagues. Why do you need to see them and smell their breath to "meet". Witness, in any meeting, the number of people who are ducking out to take calls, the number of people who are fingering their Blackberries, the number of people who are punching away at their laptops ..... I rest my case. Again "networking" and "personal touch" is often touted as a reason for physical meetings, usually to justify the booze and the dinner in the evening. There are now equally effective ways to meet, without resorting to physical travel.

Another important reason to travel is meeting the customer. Here there is no alternative - this is one of the most important activities in any business. Physical presence is necessary. But I am often amazed at how many people tag along to "meet the customer". There is rarely one on one meetings - a retinue goes. Usually only one or two people are necessary. Instead a battalion travels. When the customer is met, two people talk 95% of the time and the others smile and take notes. My favourite anecdote is when 74 people (me included) went to meet the customer.

A fourth reason , especially among senior executives and directors, is to visit the market/country/company. And what do they do - they go and sit in a meeting room and worthies troop in one by one, to make presentations. Airport, hotel, office meeting room, hotel, airport, back. Do you really have to go in flesh and blood. Again the old argument - networking, getting to meet the people over dinner - amazing how booze is always the reason to go !

If you cut out all of the above, 95% of business travel is unnecessary. But what is the alternative. My solution is simple - embrace the internet.

Most executives have not appreciated the internet and the changes it has brought to life. Many embrace it in their personal lives, and yet, it has made very little inroads into business life. And for the record I exclude E Mail from what I mean.

Lets tackle networking and personal contact - which is often the reason touted for travel. The internet has revolutionised networking beyond imagination. And yet we rarely use it in business. Just think of the very close networks many have built on line in personal life. We have reestablished contacts with our classmates from school so effectively. With My Space we have networked with complete strangers and made new and often close friends whom we may never see in person. With Facebook, we have kept in touch with all our friends even more effectively than if we could visit them once a year. Tweeting is now another social networking phenomenon. Through blogs, we express ourselves much better than if we were only to engage in a conversation. As we all know, sometimes, we are freer and more open in communicating if we don't see the person face to face. And yet in the business world, none of the above phenomenon have really found their place. A sterile CEO blog is all that seems to happen. If you want to really network, set aside 3 hours (no calls, no fiddling with the blackberry), invite as many people as you want to a web chat and you'll find you have networked far better than when you went in person and got drunk.

Web conferencing must now replace meetings and conferences completely. Just because the old man (read CEO) is uncomfortable with this technology is no reason not to adopt it.

Why do managers still travel like this. Part of it is discomfort with technology - they are still not used to it and feel uncomfortable with it. This amazes me because many of them embrace it wholeheartedly in personal life. Part of it is the bragging - how can you be a manager of consequence if you can't complain about the travelling in a party. Part of it is wanting to be "seen" at events. Part of it is that you are scared of missing the action. Maybe a little bit of all of this.

Think of what you are doing to your body. The pounding it takes from the stress, the lack of sleep, the untimely and bad food. Think of what it does to your schedule and routine - your workouts, your time at the gym, your time at the sports field back home. Think of your family. Everybody knows that they miss their children's growing years and yet they do this to themselves.

Managers know all this and yet travelling has only become worse. They need a "business" reason to stop; so let me try this on you. Every time you travel, you are adding big time to carbon emissions. Just paying a carbon tax cannot absolve you of this sin. Your company is committed to being "green". You are producing a report of how your company is acutely aware of the climate change issue and how it is acting decisively. Add a line to the report. Stop travelling and declare yourself green.


Anonymous said...

Nice one Ramesh! Considering that I have actually crossed the one Million KM mark in three years, I can absolutely agree with whatever you have written. The only redeeming feature of travel is when you actually travel to meet a customer and sort out stuff for him/her. One aspect of travel being a waste that has been missed out is the fact jet loads of people flitting across the globe release enough and more pollutants! I saw an article yesterday that the total number of air planes in India has grown from 110 in 2004 to 500 today. Not sure if this is a happy trend considering the amount of ATF being burnt in the upper atmosphere! Cheers, kiwibloke

Ramesh said...

Oh yes Elite AllBlack, absolutely true. Too much hot air, literally and figuratively that businessmen generate!

Didn't realise you have become a million mile man. I bow to you !!

cmk said...

'Stop travelling and declare yourself green'

How I wish this comes true - I am turning green with envy about you as you are able to say and do it

By the way one can only say 'Amen' to many of your 'rantings'. They are lively - keep going

Ramesh said...

Thanks CMK.

Athivas said...

I can relate to this - not just the business conference, the technical conferences. It's only about networking, which can very well be done online these days. The amount of manpower/efforts/resources that goes into organizing such events can be effectively utilized!

Ramesh said...

@athivas - You see it that way too ? The value of all conferences is seriously to be questioned.

Rajan said...

Hi Ramesh,

Like many others, I am an ardent reader of your blog, but somehow all these days did not muster the courage of leaving a response until i read this blog on business travel. "Amazing thoughts which comes out of sound experience".
I second your views on each and every aspect which you have touched upon. Ever since joining indigo in 2006 and till date (2010) i have been flying around the globe ( if not collecting miles) and to be very true and honest, its real pain. Long hours of journey, long queues, immigration etc etc.Look at the amount of money company is spending. Look from the personal front. You miss your family, mothers recipe, friends. I have missed most of the functions at my home (be it diwali, Pongal, marriage day, birthdays and many more).

We declare ourselves as being green but i see it only as a part of signature in the email with no concrete actions. I am currently into Carbon compliance and as per my recent study, we contribute to carbon in the following ways when undertaking a business travel:

1. Flights (each and every class has a different carbon emission attached to it)
2. Accommodation (If you check in at a hotel, you are sure to use the resources at that hotel, be it water, electricity etc etc)and all these aspects have carbon emissions attached to it.
3. Car and Taxi Travel.

So its not just flights which contribute to carbon, but even the accommodation and car travel associated with it. So it makes lot of sense to use video conferencing, GO To meetings to attend conferences and to get in touch with people.

To end on a lighter note, there was one benefit for me from all these travels. Guess!! " I became a good cook"

Ramesh said...

@Rajan - Great to see you here and thanks for the comment.

Indeed most travel is unnecessary and does leave a large carbon footprint. Although technology like video conferencing also leaves a big footprint - computer server farms are now becoming large emitters of carbon, consuming huge power and requiring large cooling.

The good cook effect affected everybody. Nothing like necessity to spur learning !!

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