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:


Blogger hulananni said...

Well put, Will. I've just read the "TIME" issue with "How to Save Your Newspaper" on the cover. My wish is that these two methods of communicating information can co-exist.

3/01/2009 2:34 AM  

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