“What’s the biggest competition to Jet Airways?” asked Professor Arun Kumar Jain after a group of students presented an analysis of the airline’s balance sheet to a class of working managers at IIM Lucknow, Noida Campus, in 2012.
“Skype,” said my colleague Kaustav Das after a moment’s hesitation.
It took the class a few moments to gather the significance of Kaustav’s observation. We were discussing ‘form competition,’ where competition to a product or service is not perfect and seldom from the same industry.
Jet Airways was then the airline of choice for business travellers. It had the largest market share in India, had recently become a part of Star Alliance and had just merged Jet Lite and Jet Konnect. Kingfisher Airlines was grounded and aside of Air India, there was no other full-service airline in the country.
Seven years later, Jet Airways has suspended all operations. Its founder and chairman Naresh Goyal is going through a harrowing time himself – just like the pilots, crew and ground staff of the once high-flying poster child of Indian aviation.
Though Skype had little to with it, could the emergence of digital communication platforms have a significant impact on the business traveller community where collaboration has moved to the virtual world?
It was the same year, 2012, when I experienced Cisco’s Telepresence collaboration interface for the first time. While the technology was already half a decade old, for someone who knew video conferencing in the most basic of its forms, Telepresence was a significant leap. It was a simple conference room with white walls and a brown table, at the end of which were three big TV screens attached to one another. As the screens flickered on, a mirror image of our room came to life, minus us.
The brown table seamlessly continued into the TV screens and the white wall behind it. This was more than video conferencing. It was an extension of the room we were in with the exact same furniture, wallpaper and lighting. A few minutes later, when participants from the remote location we were connecting to walked in, we almost stood up to shake hands. It was as real as sitting in the same room. On the screen, they were projected as the same size as the rest of us. There was no lag in audio, no pixelating video – it was, virtually, the same room.
While Telepresence requires organisations to procure the tool from Cisco and invest in locations apt for creating such seamless experiences, other unified communications tools are less cumbersome. Take Microsoft’s ‘Skype for Business’ for example. It lets you create workgroups, video-chat with specific team members located in remote locations, schedule meetings in advance and more. Blocking conference rooms for connecting via the company’s installed video conferencing cameras is passé and mobility is in as these tools let you collaborate from anywhere, anytime.
Cisco’s WebEx is another platform that allows up to 200 people to connect at the same time. It lets you share your screen with the whole group and presentations can be made on the go, just like a real meeting. WebEx also allows the organiser of the meeting to become the moderator, passing the ball from one speaker to another to avoid conflicting noises in a large group.
Another entrant in this space is Ogilvy’s Zoom video conferencing service. Not too different from WebEx, you get to share screens and also record the meetings for future reference and text-chat with select individuals or the whole group while attending a meeting.
Collaborating for a win-win?
Project management is the biggest winner in the days of tech-enabled collaboration. Efficiency – cost, time and interoperability – is unquestionably high. Physical boundaries notwithstanding, everyone on the project is on the same (web) page.
Today, at under $50 per employee, per year – a plethora of collaboration tools are available for companies to choose from. At present exchange rates, it works out cheaper than a one-way ticket between Delhi and Mumbai. And unlike the airline experience, a business meeting can be attended at a moment’s notice. Companies could potentially save millions of dollars a year by replacing air travel with technology. Added man hours by avoiding travel would up productivity too.
There is no doubt that the advantages of investing in collaboration tools are aplenty, but are these virtual meetings as impactful as the face-to-face real ones is something that would differ from business to business and professional to professional.
Regular updates on an on-going project and its supervision can be made cost effective and more real-time by employing technology, but could it replace the quintessential sales pitch where eye contact and a real handshake can seal a deal? Perhaps not.
Should airlines worry?
According to a KPMG and FCM Travel Solutions report last year, India is the third largest business travel market in APAC, with only China and Japan ahead. Business travel spends are expected to treble until 2030 from the 2015 base of $30 billion.
Business travel is not going down in history books yet, but companies must explore where such high costs can be avoided. Technology costs only come down with time. Data costs in India are already at the lowest they have ever been. This trend is the exact opposite of airline and hotel costs. Companies must invest in stringent air travel approvals and reasons behind why certain meetings cannot be done virtually. Not only would these have a positive impact on the P&L, it would also benefit the environment with reduced carbon footprint.
Is the airline industry likely to become a victim of this new-age collaboration? Not in the short term for sure. However, there is merit in airlines evaluating their business models where form competition now exists for the business traveller.
Kartik Malhotra is Senior Executive Producer and Editor, Special Projects, at Network 18. He is an alumnus of IIM Lucknow and, when not behind the camera, indulges in armchair analysis of strategy and technology.
Read Kartik Malhotra's columns