Sunday, February 15, 2009

Learning to hunt -- Newsweek gets it wrong... and insults a whole bunch of us in the process

I subscribe to Newsweek, and generally enjoy it. Any pub with regular articles by Fareed Zakaria is worth keeping on the nightstand. This last week, though, there was an article about how President Obama's use of a Blackberry is, well... questionable. All the old arguments against continuous partial attention (which I've written about before) get trotted out.

I won't get into my arguments in detail again. Go back and read the last link above if you want. But, to be brief, my belief is that we're in a time where intellectual "hunting" skills are coming back into greater use, after more than a century of "gathering." Modern agriculture and the industrial revolution (as epitomized by the assembly line) being examples of activities that require dedicted, unflinching attention to specific, repetitive details (gathering). Being able to do more than one thing, successfully, at a time is necessary, I think, if we want to thrive in an always-on, information-rich society in which we will (they tell us) change jobs 7-109 times during our professional careers. The skills required for situational awareness, group processing, micro- and multi-tasking being much more akin (at least metaphorically) to hunting.

Whether you agree with me or not, Sharon Begley, the author of the Newsweek article, manages not only to trot out all the familiar (and, frankly, at this point, kinda stale) arguments against connectivity... she offhandedly insults an entire class (or two) of workers. A class which I belong to. She says:

The BlackBerry (which isn't nicknamed CrackBerry for nothing) is way more seductive than, say, e-mail alerts. Thanks to its growing social and cultural cachet, it can make the most inconsequential middle manager feel as important as the CEO who must always be reachable, and it can feed the illusion of the lowliest salaryman that his input is so central he must be thumbing away at the dinner table and on vacation.

What the what? "The most inconsequential middle manager." Hey! That's me! I mean, I may not consider what I do "inconsequential," of course, but I'm certainly a middle manager. I like to think that my boss and my team and my peers and our customers don't consider my efforts "inconsequential."

In fact, middle managers are probably the folks who are at most in need of various connective technology. On the one hand, you've got (we assume) upper management above... and they should be thinking deep thoughts, planning great plans, and having (ahem) consequential communications with others at their rank. I do not, in any way, resent their use of Blackberries, et al... but the case could be made (as Belgey does in the example of President Obama), that the higher up you go, the more "undistracted" time you need.

And on the flip side, folks who are at the "operations" level are often doing tasks that require specific, explicit attention. If you are in the middle of (for example) a sales visit or a customer service call, taking a moment to check your Blackberry could be both impolite and counterproductive. Same for (as Begley points out) jobs where attention is specific to the activity -- pilots, doctors, etc.

Middle managers, though, are the ones that often translate the strategic decisions of upper management into specific, tactical plans that then need to be communicated to operational teams. These (we) are the people who often need to put programs on hold, start new projects and refine ongoing activities with (in some cases) little notice. The ability to monitor communications from above and efficiently move them to the proper operational channel isn't a distraction... it's a way to be more efficient.

Are there times when we need to put down the Blackberry? Of course. But we learned how to do it with cell phones, didn't we? Remember in the early 90's when everybody was either answering phones in obnoxious public places (movies, restaurants) or pissed at the people who did? We moved through it. The tools get refined and the social environment changes. Now that we all have cell phones, we no longer mind when someone glances at the screen and says, "Sorry... I have to take this. My wife is calling about my picking up the kids." We don't mind because it happens to us. It's part of our communications DNA now.

Give the Blackberry and its sister hardware another 5-10 years. Everyone will have some kind of instant email or IM capability on their phones. Everyone. When that happens, discreetly checking the screen during lulls in meetings or in the elevator won't be a big deal because we'll all do it.

Taking an IM or email when you're in an interview, performing on stage or during your annual review? Not smart. But smart decisions have less to do with the technology than with the user.

In conclusion... get used to it, Sharon. And, speaking on behalf of all inconsequential middle managers and lowly salarymen...

Bite me.

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