Volcano puts video in focus

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No one can pronounce it, and hardly anyone has been to visit it, but surely, Eyjafjallajökull -- the most cut-and-pasted word of 2010 -- will be remembered for renewing our focus on video communications. 

The Icelandic volcano, which has been spewing ash into the atmosphere since mid-March, stranded business travellers for almost a week in mid-April as it filled the skies above Europe with ash. It shut down London's Heathrow airport once again in mid-May with a fresh eruption. In some cases, almost the entire staff of some companies were stranded in parts of Europe at conferences, and for many more, ad hoc business flights had to be cancelled, causing immense disruption.

If video communication wasn't at the top of many companies' travel and meeting planning strategies before, it should be now. Companies may have viewed the use of converged IP networks for videoconferencing as little more than a luxury in the past, but this concept is becoming crucial in a business continuity context.

Organisations are still hell-bent on sending top executives across the Atlantic Ocean and in between European countries to meet each other face-to-face for important discussions, in the belief that there is no substitute for looking someone in the eye. They are right, in that it is still important for many executives to tell, via body language and facial expression, that somebody 'gets it'. But when incidents such as the Icelandic eruption make this impossible, it highlights the importance of supporting such meetings in other ways.

Executives who are unable to travel and conduct their meetings face-to-face may feel that not being able to meet loosens their grip on the business. Suddenly, without the ability to conduct intimate discussions about important tactical and strategic topics, elements of the business may begin to drift apart. Leadership begins to suffer.

As the price of telepresence continues to fall, and high-definition desktop conferencing becomes increasingly accessible, it becomes possible to use these techniques as a form of business continuity, enabling executives to stay in touch. However, the role of business continuity itself is changing.

In the past, organisations focused on disaster recovery. They used playbooks that told them what to do in the event of a serious incident. Steps could be taken to recover data and get business back online. Today, however, business continuity is more about building this protection into general business operations, so that when a disaster does strike, the business is able to carry on without any downtime. 

Rather than simply using telepresence and videoconferencing as a backup in the event of travel disruption, they could be folded into everyday meeting strategies on a companywide basis. This would help organisations to reduce travel costs, and to ingrain long-distance remote collaboration into their business cultures.

This concept may well receive support from the travel industry. It would come as no surprise to see corporate travel agencies begin to incorporate telepresence and videoconferencing services into their portfolios, as customers begin to demand alternatives to increasingly difficult and unreliable physical travel. 

As and when this happens, airlines will face an increasing challenge. After all, one does not need to walk through a body scanner, remove one's shoes, or pay airport taxes to participate in a telepresence meeting. And no matter how angry and Icelandic volcano becomes, it cannot disrupt the gentle humming of packets over a highly reliable and instantaneous converged international IP network.

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.