It takes a volcano?

There’s an old joke about an effective way to train a mule. Step one: Hit him over the head with a two-by-four because first you have to get his attention.

This past month Iceland’s volcano Eyafjallajökull has definitely gotten the attention of almost anyone bound to or from Europe. Although estimates vary, the costs of the ash-induced travel interruptions since the beginning of April are in the tens of billions of dollars/euros/pounds. Those costs are measured in flights canceled, insurance claims, hotel and restaurant charges and lost productivity, among others, and are guaranteed to continue to mount as the volcano keeps erupting and the wind patterns closely resemble the recent ones. (For a different view of the productivity issue check Lucy Kellaway’s article in the 26 April Financial Times.)

There has also been a sudden rash in videoconferencing and similar forms of teleworking, according to press reports.

Now the question is: has anybody learned anything from all this?

Clearly, for vacationers there would have been no substitute for the trips taken, or not taken, as the case may be. A video conference view of Chipping Camden in the Cotswolds is not the same as being there in person. But for business travelers engaged in routine interchange with clients, associates, suppliers or potential customers we’re back to the same old question: were those trips really necessary? Judging from the alleged increase in teleconferencing the past few weeks it’s possible that some business people are seriously rethinking their travel needs. For the stranded business people, and their employers, those recent trips were far more costly and less productive than planned. Also, at the moment, there’s no assurance that the volcano won’t keep erupting indefinitely.

For years we have been exhorting businesses to totally reconsider their travel needs, both local and long distance, in the interests of energy conservation, air quality and the fabled bottom line. We have usually found agreement in principle but not in actions taken. The reason? It’s much easier to keep doing business as before; change is difficult and inertia is great. It often takes a serious interruption in normality to precipitate a switch to a better way. In California earthquakes tend to be the serious interrupters. In Europe it may turn out to be a volcano.

Ironically, in 1995 Laila and I were in Berlin for a conference on telework (I know, I know, if my subject was the greatness of telework why did I have to go there to explain it to people?). One of the attendees was a fellow from Iceland who took great pleasure in explaining to us why Iceland did not want to join the European Union. The chief reason, he said, was that Icelanders were well off financially and felt no need or desire to subsidize less efficient economies in the EU. Now, with the financial crisis, especially in Iceland, the Icelanders appear to be more in favor of EU  membership now but are being spurned by some European countries.

Do you think that this Eyafjallajökull thing is revenge? Naw, it can’t be, but it certainly served to get everyone’s attention.

We’ll see.

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