Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Unlearning BlackBerry Etiquette

(Unlearning is an interesting approach to preparing for the future from friend and author Jack Uldrich.)

I just read another one of those omnipresent articles about how rude it is for people to be using their BlackBerries and Treos and other PDAs during meetings and "power lunches". While I agree that it is important to be respectful of other people’s time and attention in a meeting, the sheer frequency and fervor of these articles could lead one to believe that all meetings would be well run and productive if not for the evil intents of RIM and Palm and all of the other PDA manufacturers. The fact of the matter is that BlackBerries and their peers are no more responsible for distracted meeting attendees than cell phones are for distracted drivers. To put it another way, BlackBerries don't kill meetings, people kill meetings. You don't believe me? Think back to the classmates that would stare out the classroom window during particularly compelling lectures, or drawings and scribbles in the margins of your coworker's meeting agendas. What about the number of people who would bring their notebook computer to a meeting just to complete a few more hands of Solitaire. The fact of the matter is that people will find distractions in a meeting or in a car regardless of the technology at hand, or in hand as is more often the case.

Business etiquette is the central issue to be addressed in these situations, but I am going to take this article in a different direction. I am going to raise a proposition that will run counter to most of the BlackBerry etiquette articles I have read. Most of these articles start with “common sense” recommendations like leaving your iPhone at your desk, or turning it off during the meeting. With a quarter century of experience selling, supporting, marketing and evangelizing emerging technologies, I can assure you that those efforts are counterproductive and will actually slow the acceptable use of PDAs in meetings.

I recognize that PDAs are an enabling technology for the distracted, but I contend that they are also an enabling technology for the productive participant. Earlier this year I was at a conference with thousands of BlackBerry users. I, like many of the other attendees, spent the majority of each breakout session pressing the tiny keys on my BlackBerry. I'm sure that some of my peers were catching up on their e-mail. I witnessed others who were playing games or surfing the internet. These are the same people who were scribbling on their meeting agendas four or five years ago. Now the common retort of the e-mailer is that they need to stay connected, even during meetings. My answer to them is that mobile data is not about connectivity, it’s about control. I paid close to $4,000 in travel and registration fees to attend this conference. Very few e-mails were worth the distraction or more importantly, the information I would have missed from the speakers at these sessions. But what about me? I told you that I was also typing away on my BlackBerry. I was. I was taking notes. You see, I can type fast enough on my BlackBerry to take notes at a conference. I will go out on a limb and tell you that I was not alone. As I said, it's about control. By entering my notes on the BlackBerry, they automatically synchronized with my desktop computer and were instantly available for me to e-mail. At that point some of my colleagues and I were in control of the knowledge that was shared with us that day.

A PDA can bring control to a business lunch similar to how it brought control to the conference. I have used my BlackBerry to schedule lunch meetings, navigate to them, call other attendees and even check the restaurant's menu before I arrived. Once I find myself in a face to face situation, the BlackBerry gets holstered. I may pull it out to schedule another meeting with my lunch guest, search for some information that will move the meeting forward, or even record some information that I will need to remember, but I will not check e-mail, surf some unrelated websites, or play games. The PDA still needs to be viewed as a tool and should never take away from the purpose and attention of the meeting. Therefore we need to realize that technology should not be used as an excuse to be rude. If a person believes that they can hide behind their iPhone during a meeting under the guise that they are taking notes, any good meeting organizer will tell them that they are only fooling themselves. No Treo, BlackBerry or iPhone will hide the lack of attention and eye contact that is evident when someone is not paying attention.

My main point is that banning or discouraging Treos and other PDAs from meetings is only going to postpone the civil acceptance and courteous use of these important business tools. Realize that not everyone who is using a BlackBerry at a conference or in an important meeting is distracted or inattentive. PDAs can serve a valuable purpose in these situations. As these tools become more prevalent, so will their use in meetings. By being aware of this technological shift, we can prepare for the social shift that will accompany it. Even if you don’t use one, you will need to realize that not every PDA user is a "crackberry addict". As we in business begin to come to terms with this, the PDAs acceptance at meetings will grow not out of surrender to technology, but out of recognition of the value they can bring to the attendees and the progress of the meeting itself. Prepare yourself for the reality that PDAs will quickly move from an unwelcome distraction to a required resource at most meetings in the near future.

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