~ Fuel Costs vs. Face Time

The news for this traditional travel holiday weekend in the US is that fuel costs are actually cutting into Americans’ travel plans. It’s the first significant year-on-year drop in projected travel since the 1979 fuel crisis. This time around, it could be different, though. We all saw the ’79 gas shock as a skirmish in the West’s cold war with OPEC — and as a temporary event. Today, however, there is a sense that oil prices in the US are permanently resetting themselves at a level more consistent with those the rest of the world pays.

Combine this ground level observation with the desperate measures airlines are taking to cope with fuel prices and it becomes obvious that something basic in the economies of the industrialized world is changing. Already, the relationship between service businesses and their customers is changing, and not for the better. And within organizations, this is going to have an effect on our relationships with one another. While the data really aren’t there yet to prove this, it is reasonable to expect the rising costs of air fares, car rentals and hotels to cut significantly into business travel, soon. (Possibly a leading indicator: Air travel in first and business class is already off. This is where the real value is for the airlines.)

What this means, if it’s borne out, is that we’re all going to start seeing less of one another.

That’s worrisome to those of us whose business it is to see to it that people in organizations successfully exchange knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t travel solely in explicit forms — in e-mails, memos, articles published in knowledge bases, or bulletins posted in SharePoint sites. Knowledge often is transmitted subliminally, or accidentally, in the body language and conversational nuance that only comes from face time.

That’s why executives insist on reviewing the troops in person; it’s why meetings (when they’re run effectively) continue to matter. If companies cut back sharply on travel to meetings, something that materially affects productivity and competitiveness — for individual companies and eventually for the economy as a whole — is going to be lost.

Closer to ground level, in service desks and call centers (the ones that are still physically located in North America), there is growing interest in a parallel coping strategy: The “agent at home” concept, in which customer service or help desk agents, instead of commuting every day to a warren of cubicles, do what they do from home, connected through CRM software, IP telephony and instant messaging.

What the agent at home loses is the opportunity to “prairie-dog” — to collaborate on problems with peers one cubicle away. But it’s a sacrifice many agents will willingly make when it costs $70 to gas up the minivan. This option is already making it possible for companies to find and retain capable people in jobs that are neither glamorous nor particularly lucrative — but actually can be done rather effectively from home, if these people are both disciplined and knowledgeable. So the agent at home has the feel of inevitability, at least in the US.

It seems self-evident that as people increasingly view themselves as knowledge workers (since everything that isn’t knowledge work is being outsourced), their ability to pick one another’s brains is of strategic importance to the organizations they work for. It is unrealistic to conceive of an agent at home operation without some kind of shared knowledge base. That one is obvious.

But work at every level, in every functional area in organizations, is increasingly collaborative, and collaboration is increasingly virtual. Those companies that have thus far resisted adoption of social media applications (forums, wikis, collaboration systems, blogging platforms, Facebook) will have to investigate them to fill the knowledge gap created when the travel clamps go on and peers become, more and more, disembodied voices and blog personae.

All organizations are feeling the pressure to change the way they operate. Asking technology to enable managers to go on functioning as they always have — e.g., using videoconferencing to try to run the same types of meetings they used to run in the face to face world — will be a short-lived pattern. Work is changing — and the tipping point, when it becomes too obvious to ignore, is likely to be expressed as a price per gallon.

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3 thoughts on “~ Fuel Costs vs. Face Time

  1. Thank Grid that we’ve got the start of a way for Knowledge Networking that we did not have in ’79… The Global Collaboration possible now provides so many of the types of non textual communication that we find important when we meet together, that were missing in tinny sounding phone calls or even 1200 BPS bulletin boards and chat rooms. And I can keep my avatar from laughing out loud when I hear that idiot’s proposal about better widget management. That is not something I was good at it real life…

  2. You raise a great issue, and you’re right, there’s a tipping point out there on
    the horizon.

    Nearby, at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janiella Farm, their director Cheryl Moore requires that people who work there be physically present, as the very nature of their work demands face-to-face collaboration.

    I think the bottom line is knowing which types of efforts require personal presence, and which can be done just as well, or even more effectively, using virtual collaborative tools. Costly mismatches can occur on both sides of the issue.

  3. Nice article, though I still don’t feel comfortable that the necessary
    technologies are in place to allow for an effective distributed
    knowledge sharing and distributed working environment. My team at HP
    was global and we went to great pains to make sure we functioned as a
    team. It worked, but the primary technology in play was simply the
    phone–we were encouraged to communicate (with Germany, Singapore,
    etc.) on a near-daily basis. And we still found it necessary to get
    the group together once or twice a year to keep the relationships
    healthy.

    Wikis, blogs, and other technologies, effectively used, can possibly
    reduce the need for face time, but I’m skeptical that they can replace
    it, at least in the enterprise environment.

    I throw in that last caveat because tools such as email and discussion
    groups have been used effectively in the open source community since
    the 70s. It’s a different culture, where communication is completely
    open and there’s a community-accepted set of social mores. Enterprise
    is a different game.

    By the way, I like the look of your site. Funky duck.

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