Distance is dead. Or, at least, remoteness is. Today, from your airliner seat, your country retreat, the middle of the desert even, you can sift and respond to e-mails, check share prices or football scores, and fend off your boss. The corporate world is abuzz with intranets and extranets.
Virtual communities and workforces span the continents. But try to get your corporeal self around the planet and things are troublesome. We stew in traffic or get stranded at the airport; the jumbo jet, designed four decades ago, is still sub-sonic. So the global village has arrived with a 21st-century nervous system but leaden legs. Hence the continued need for business people to leave these shores and do a stint abroad. Nationality may not matter much these days to companies, but with the onrush of globalisation, the expat exec is going to play a vital role for decades in business communities.
A-list talent in the arts has always been footloose. But surveys show that even in more mundane industries companies expect overseas employment to grow in the next five years, offering expanding opportunities for middle managers. As emerging countries like India get the taste for consumer pleasures and lead in certain high-tech areas, firms should abandon the 'branch office' approach to a foreign posting. Skilled incomers will instead find themselves part of the process of a country's transformation.
But this is no picnic, especially for senior women executives posted abroad. Packing children off to boarding schools back in Britain no longer looks appealing. Even so, many execs see foreign experience as more essential than ever. One reason, ironically, is the very e-revolution that is shrinking the world. The US is the undisputed home of those happening industries of technology, media and telecoms. California is where you feel the cutting edge of the new economy; where the internet argot is minted; where the mentality of new fast business is learned. And America is also where people are schooled in raising risk capital. Ask the makers of Notting Hill, or Phoenix, the new backers of carmaker Rover.
There is a healthy European dimension too. Multinationals are headquartering in Brussels and their executives putting down roots there alongside the legions of lawyers, lobbyists, regional and trade associations, and eurocrats. The wave of consolidation across the eurozone can only reinforce that trend.
Are we becoming a rootless, fragmented global society in which people scarcely know their next-door neighbours or fellow workers? Maybe. But building communities is a current concern. A dot.com start-up often thrives on togetherness. New virtual workforces will develop the cohesiveness and intimacy of old, but in different modes. Distance has been conquered but community remains vital.