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Ron Ashkenas

Ron Ashkenas

Posted: April 14, 2010 08:16 AM

Rapid Disruption's Next Victim: The Airline Industry

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Over the last two decades a number of new technologies have become so ubiquitous that we now take them for granted and don't realize how much they have changed our lives and our world. Consider, for example, the internet and our ability to search for information easily and quickly; the use of GPS for personal navigation; and handheld devices that can store music and video.

What's common with all of these technologies is that they have created "solutions" that are fast, inexpensive, and relatively simple to use -- while quickly outmoding and disrupting long-standing industries that provided "old" and suddenly less competitive solutions. And it's happened in the blink of an eye. Witness the struggles of postal services, newspapers, publishing companies, broadcast networks, retail video outlets, music producers, and many more.

One of the next candidates for rapid disruption is the airline industry. Everyone knows that airlines are under siege these days -- from fluctuating fuel prices, security concerns, and an economic downturn that has reduced business travel. But what we (and industry executives) may not realize is that the biggest threat to the airlines is a disruptive set of solutions that will dramatically reduce the need for air travel altogether.

The "solutions" I'm referring to are virtual meetings -- including teleconferences; web-based meetings attended on personal computers and handheld devices; and videoconferences. The problem that these solutions solve is how to get people together in real time in a way that they can interact naturally, build relationships, solve problems, and share information -- without having to travel.

I recently had an opportunity to utilize high-end videoconference technology as part of a workshop I conducted for forty managers who were in five different locations in North America and one location in India. On two consecutive days, we held four-hour sessions with all the participants -- with a mix of lectures, discussion, breakout groups, and report-outs. Much to my amazement, the technology supported extremely robust interactions with people chiming in from all of the locations.

There were no delays, pauses, or interruptions; and everyone could view the slides and, at the same time, see anyone who was speaking. In addition, the high definition screens were so clear that you could read the ingredients on the soda cans on the tables at the other sites. After a few minutes, it was easy to forget that we were in multiple locations around the world.

But my experience is probably only the beginning of what is possible and what will evolve over the next few years. Most firms already use some form of web-based meeting where people can view slides or data together in real time while participating in a teleconference. Many others are installing high-end video rooms in key locations so that managers and executives who would ordinarily travel to meet with each other can hold virtual meetings with greater frequency and less downtime. Other executives have put personal units in their homes or offices to facilitate real time dialogue with colleagues in other geographies. And Cisco, AT&T, and the Marriott Corporation have recently announced a deal to create "GoThere Virtual Meetings" in 25 hotels around the world over the next year, with many more locations to follow in subsequent years. This will allow managers to drive to a nearby hotel to virtually meet with colleagues or customers from around the world.

But businesses are not the only users. Parents with children living or studying abroad are staying in touch through Skype-based video chats -- as are families who are geographically distant. And during the holidays, soldiers in Afghanistan were given access to video technologies that enabled them to have virtual meetings with their families back home. Suddenly it's possible to truly "get together" with people across the globe in real-time with little or no cost.

As these technologies and solutions become more robust, less expensive, and more ubiquitous, they truly will shrink the world so that everyone can participate easily in what Cisco calls the "human network." It's a nightmare scenario for the airlines and their suppliers -- even though they may not yet realize it as they continue to buy bigger planes and plan larger airports. But for the rest of us, it might just make the global world an easier place to do business.

What's your experience with virtual meetings? Are they making things simpler for you and your company, and do you prefer to meet virtually rather than to fly?

This article was originally posted on Harvard Business Online