Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Blackberry backlash - toting a double-edged gadget

Well it’s finally happened. I’m being issued a Blackberry.

Like Neo being plugged into The Matrix for the first time, I am at once terrified and fascinated with what life will now hold for me. There’s really no going back.

I’ve been thinking about this development for some time now and, as so often happens, I’ve come across all sorts of references, research and ramblings on the subject. Here are some highlights, posted in my pre-Blackberry phase while my innocence is yet intact.

Blackberry backlash

Why, you might ask, have I such trepidation?

It could be a result of the countless haggard souls I’ve watched as they charge blindly down city streets – heads down, eyeing fixedly their handheld addiction – looking for all the world like a cross between an Olympic power walker and Night of the Living Dead.

No wonder some wit in London came up with the idea of a padded lamppost campaign to highlight the absurdity of these Crack(berry)heads walking down a packed city street while paying nearly no attention to where they are going.

There was a great article in last week’s Australian Financial Review. Entitled “Blackberry backlash building,” the title article perfectly captured my personal ambivalence about these ubiquitous little gadgets: neither panacea nor plague, more like a double-edged sword with the power to do good or ill, depending on how it is wielded.

The AFR article makes the point that there are upsides:

“…users are more productive, they are freed from their desks to build relationships with colleagues and clients and they can create more balance into their work lives by pocketing the device when they take a day off”

On the other hand:

“…users tend to be unnecessarily distracted by inconsequential emails, delegate less, put too little thought into their email responses and are sometimes only there in a physical sense when other people really need their full attention.”

London calling

I’ve heard many justifications for the compulsive checking of these devices whenever they beckon with a sudden bursts of light in the dead of night. Many of these have to do with differences in time zones, the 24/7 nature of the global economy and the like. But allow me to share an anecdote that a colleague passed along to me during dinner the other night.

A mate of his in Hong Kong spent most of an evening out on the town with my colleague and other friends obsessively checking his Blackberry. His rationale? “London might be trying to get in touch with me!” What went without any mention was his increasing state of inebriation (in parallel with his electronic distraction); quite whether anyone, in London or otherwise, would want him to be making business decisions at that point was a question that remained discreetly unasked.

Speaking of questions, I have two: one concerns etiquette; the other relative (self-)importance.

Mind your manners

Many people with these devices are guilty of the most appalling breaches of etiquette and social niceties. I mean think about it: until quite recently if someone sat in a meeting either sneaking a peak or indeed staring outright into that delicate space between the tabletop and their own groin region while obsessively fiddling in said delicate region with their fingers they'd have been sternly questioned if not in serious peril of a sexual harassment charge. No longer (that is, provided that they DO have a Blackberry down there!)

It's not just in meetings - as the above list of Blackberry negatives indicates, people are increasingly present in body only, while their attention is seriously compromised and thereby any intelligence they might usefully bring to bear on the conversation at hand.

At a dinner of senior managers the other night I noted their Crackberrys were littered around the table like so many drink coasters, with people reaching for their gadgets just about as often as they did their drinks. Mine was the only spot not so adorned, I noted with smug superiority. But will I still be that guy in a week’s time?

I love the following list that Judi MacCormick devised and that appeared in the AFR article last Tuesday (p 59, 06/05/2008):

Is it (or are you) really that important?

On the broader subject of just what role email should play in our (work) lives, I’ve been intrigued by an experiment that Luis Suarez has undertaken. He wants to give up on work email.

I can practically hear the sharp inhalations of breath and/or snorts of disbelief that might greet news of such a project…but he’s actually been quite successful at it.

All of which offers some hope, if only we’d stop and think about it. For my part, I’m content to take the salient lessons and warnings from the above experiences and see what awaits me.

Wait, do you hear that?

Is that the sweet sound of technology-enabled freedom I hear approaching, or...

...the sickening squelch of The Matrix cable connecting to the socket at the base of my skull as I float in my pool of liquid nutrients and the machines begin to feed off my life energy?

Stay tuned, I’ll let you know!

PS -Hat tip to Alex Manchester and The Melcrum Blog for the info on Luis Suarez.

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