Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Telecommuting Finally Has Wings, and It Will Certainly Replace Some Airplane Wings

Last week I ruminated on my goal to get off the road as much as possible while doing what I do best professionally: consult with large organizations. This week is a brief look at the tools and techniques that might allow me and millions of others to do it.

We are all familiar the hackeyed 1970s term, telecommuting. Its unfulfilled promises of working from home have been tried so many times and failed that it's almost laughable. Here's what Wikipedia says about it and related terms. Note especially the tail end of the descriptions:

Telecommuting, e-commuting, e-work, telework, working at home (WAH), or working from home (WFH) is a work arrangement in which employees enjoy flexibility in working location and hours.

In other words, the daily commute to a central place of work is replaced by telecommunication links. Many work from home, while others, occasionally also referred to as nomad workers or web commuters utilize mobile telecommunications technology to work from coffee shops or myriad other locations.

Telework is a broader term, referring to substituting telecommunications for any form of work-related travel, thereby eliminating the distance restrictions of telecommuting.

All telecommuters are teleworkers but not all teleworkers are telecommuters. A frequently repeated motto is that "work is something you do, not something you travel to".

A successful telecommuting program requires a management style which is based on results and not on close scrutiny of individual employees. This is referred to as management by objectives as opposed to management by observation. The terms telecommuting and telework were coined by American Jack Nilles in 1973.

Long distance telework is facilitated by such tools as virtual private networks, videoconferencing, and Voice over IP. It can be efficient and useful for companies as it allows staff and workers to communicate over a large distance, saving significant amounts of travel time and cost.

As broadband Internet connections become more commonplace, more and more workers have enough bandwidth at home to use these tools to link their home office to their corporate intranet and internal phone networks.

Even before the spiffy term, telecommuting, was coined in 1973, those of us old enough to remember the 1950s and 60s vividly recall AT&T's promise of video phones just around the corner! TV ads showed delighted grandmothers chatting with their grandkids from thousands of miles away, each with a TV monitor to see the other. Video calls would soon be routine; every home and business would have them.

Well, here we are forty years later, and FINALLY we do have that capability, thanks to the exploding Internet and widespread availability of fast access to the Web. New free and almost free video-conferencing software from ooVoo (, Skype, and others is simply amazing.

I have been participating in ooVoo video conferences with four other colleagues twice a week now. I am in Raleigh, and they are in Houston, Atlanta, and two places in Marin County, California. In conjunctions with GoTo Meeting software, we can effectively communicate and work almost as well as if we were together.

Here's a story Joe Sharkey wrote about my experiences in his weekly "On the Road" column in Tuesday's New York Times (February 24, 2009):

Between meetings we are taking advantage of Google's generous free wiki offering (see "Sites" at Google, and you must be registered with Google, which takes about one minute) to post our work and edit it as we go. Like all wikis, the Google site allows multiple simultaneous edits but retains all previous work as we merge and update each other's work with our own.

I am not even mentioning here the hundreds of other widely-used Web 2.0 tools and techniques which are making effective telecommuting possible for the first time. Things like Basecamp for remote community project management, Twitter and IM, Facebook and LinkedIn for social networking, and open source back end software like Drupal.

All this is made possible by the Web, where, increasingly, works gets done not on individual computers in your home or at your desk, but "in the cloud" of the Internet. Hence the term, "cloud computing." And cloud computing is fast changing the way we work whether in our traditional office environments or "telecommuting" from home or locations remote from the office.

Recently Jonathan Rosenberg, SVP, Product Development, at Google, wrote a thought-provoking piece about cloud computing. I highly recommend it. In fact it ought to be reqired reading for everyone on the planet:

All this might make my dream to travel a lot less but remain in my profession come true. That means a lot fewer airplanes, hotels, rental cars, and less firsthand knowledge of blizzards in Marquette, Michigan or hurricanes in Houston.

Of course there is a flip side to the trend which must be guarded against. That's the impersonal nature of distant communication, whether by old-fashioned voice phone or via cheap new video VOiP tools. Here, for instance, is the reaction of a twenty-something colleague who has been in the workforce for just a couple of years to the Joe Sharkey article:

"That article is pretty cool, and I agree with it. I think for at least my generation of people we grew up using AOL Instant Messenger and other types of those programs, so remote networking and conferencing is second nature.

"In fact, it's gotten to the point where I think a lot of people maybe even start to prefer face-to-face encounters after a while because they are so rare.

"Almost everybody I know who works in media or group-project-endeavors these days uses Basecamp and Instant Messenger (or Skype, or MSN Messenger, etc.) to coordinate their work."

There's no substitute for person-to-person human contact, and most businesses, including mine, will have to figure out what is the right balance between the new tools and capabilities and really being there.

However, I don't see myself or any colleagues reaching the 200,000 mile mark via air in a single year ever again.

If you want a fast primer in Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 (which is basically using Web 2.0 tools at work), look at this short online slide show:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Life OFF the Road

About a year ago I expressed in this web log my intent to find an alternative worklife that did not require me to travel 100% as I had been doing for 30 years. This is an update on my efforts to get off the road and my feelings about the adjustment so far.

After nearly abandoning consulting in January last year following an epiphany while on assignment in London, I instead subsequently accepted an offer to stay in consulting but be away from home just four days a week. That didn't last; I came to realize that I had lost my desire and commitment to be away from my wife and kids over half the week. In late April, 2008, I threw in the towel and took a sabbatical from consulting.

My goal then was to decompress for a few months and to nose around my local area (Raleigh, North Carolina and nearby Research Triangle Park) to look for job opportunities. I figured, worst case, I'd go back on the road to replenish the family coffers by Labor Day.

My timing couldn't have been worse. The sinking economy put thousands of good consultants on the streets in the last six months of 2008. As opportunities dried up, I considered the prospect of never returning to my former life on the road.

What would it be like? Could I REALLY adapt to being a peon traveler again as I gradually lost all my frequent flyer, hotel, and rental car elite memberships? Would I lose my edge and almost animal sense of knowing how to successfully navigate every travel mishap?

Against these mild anxieties I weighed the benefits of being at home: Simply put, I have NEVER been at home for long periods, but I LOVE being at home with my wife and my two wonderful kids (ages ten and five).

And there are many things I never miss when not on the road. People who don't travel for a living imagine that those of us who do live a glamorous life out there, flying first class, sleeping in the penthouse suites of five-star hotels, dining in swanky restaurants, and riding in limos down the famous streets and boulevards of big cities they have never seen.

Truth is, of course, that I have never stayed on business in a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons and only once in thirty years been transported in a stretch limousine (and that was not at client expense). We consultants can tell you a lot, though, about certain types of inns--Holiday Inns, Quality Inns, and Fairfield Inns--in out-of-the-way places like Marquette, Michigan and Alva, Oklahoma and Leominster, Massachusetts. And how hard it is to find anything but a Cracker Barrel restaurant or a KFC open at 11:00 PM when we often leave the client workplace in Des Moines, Yuma, or rural Tennessee. We also know much about center seats in coach on rebooked connections, the mirage of airline upgrade programs, the average taxiway wait for takeoff at LaGuardia, and the myth of airline customer service.

Just the same, as Joe Brancatelli is right to remind those of us who DO travel for a living, we are the lucky ones. Travel is a great teacher. Experiences on the road are always unique.

However, in the end it was easy to admit that, for me at least, school is out. I am ready to matriculate to a new experience: that of being mostly at home. Now the trick becomes how to create a new work life for myself.

Frankly, after almost of a year of reflection, I have few clues as to new endeavors that might generate income. But I am working on it.

Usually when I sit down to write a blog post here, my thoughts and feelings flow easily. Not this time. This is a difficult subject for me, and I'm not sure why. Maybe because I am, like all of us in this uncertain economy, unable to predict what opportunities, familiar or novel, will be out there.

I think it's more than that, though. I've enjoyed writing this travel blog, and I see its relevance fading. Perhaps I can keep it up as I experience firsthand an occasional travel situation, but there will inevitably be longer intervals between posts henceforth.

In the near future, for instance, I have two trips planned, and I will write about them. The first is to New Orleans in March, and the second is in April to visit my wife's family in Minnesota. It was more difficult than I anticipated in this supposed buyer's market for air travel to find a bargain to either MSY or MSP. We are also trying to pin down tickets in August to Montana, and that's up in the air (no pun intended) for the same reason. And there's another Amtrak trip to be coordinated.

These and other topics may be worth a post or two, so stay tuned.

Meantime, safe travels to all still out there on the road.