It does have an Off button

Posted on Wednesday, May 5, 2010

4216-POV-TODD-MINTZBERGProfs. Peter Todd and Henry Mintzberg offer their takes on the connected work world

To anyone who works in an office, it’s quite clear the proliferation of mobile computing technologies – from BlackBerries to laptops to iPhones – has a huge effect on the way managers and other workers go about their daily business. What may be surprising is that not many academics have researched these effects.

Desautels Faculty of Management Prof. Henry Mintzberg, who literally wrote the book on the nature of managerial work, and Dean Peter Todd, who has studied the effect of information technology on decision-making, shared with The Reporter some informed speculation about the way email, in particular, influences management work – for better and for worse. They also offered advice for minimizing the downside.

Henry Mintzberg:

Studies have made clear that to manage is largely to communicate: many if not most managers spend at least half their time doing just that – simply collecting, receiving, and disseminating information. Traditionally, they have favoured “word-of-mouth”: talking and listening, whether at meetings, chance encounters or telephone calls.Moreover, evidence from study after study, many conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, has indicated that managing is also an action-oriented, hectic job; its activities characterized by brevity, variety, fragmentation, and interruptions – galore.

This pattern may be inevitable in the effective practice of management, but only to a point. Beyond that, it can drive the practice over the edge, to a place from which it may be difficult to escape.

Managers used to be connected only when they were at work, or else within reach of a telephone, itself requiring a line of limited length. Then along came the cell phone, and later the BlackBerry. What joy to be perpetually connected. And what terror.

How fast, how hectic, how interrupted can managing be before the manager loses it entirely? I suspect the answer may not be far away. Look around, or maybe in the mirror. Indeed, is the current finance crisis a crisis of email? Were too many people in senior and middle management positions in those banks, insurance companies and credit rating agencies so harassed that they lost any sense of reflecting thoughtfully on their important decisions?

Have you tried to use email to schedule a meeting lately? How many did it take? At what point might it have been easier to just pick up the phone – to have become a little more interactive: “Well I can move my 4:00 appointment to 4:15 if you can shift your 4:30 one to 5:00,” etc. How many emails to do that?

The danger of email is that by giving the illusion of being in control, it may in fact be robbing managers of the control they require. How much easier it is to send off a bunch of emails than to get into an airplane, or even walk down the hall. But at what expense, given that time in front of a screen is not time in front of a person?

Email can drive too much managing over the edge: making it too frenetic, too disconnected, too superficial, putting managers out of touch with the very practice of effective managing.

One thing we have learned about managing, and apply religiously in the programs we have developed at McGill, is that managers today desperately need to slow down, step back, and reflect thoughtfully with each other on their own experiences.

Of course, every executive education program requires use of the Off button on BlackBerries, iPhones and the like. But maybe the most important thing we teach in these programs is that the Off button works outside the classroom too: at home, and on holidays, but most important at work, itself. One corporate CEO commented about email that, “You can never escape. You can’t go anywhere to contemplate.” Not true. You can go anywhere you please. It’s your choice: will you control this technology, so that it works for you, or will it capture you and undermine your practice of management, not to mention that of those who report to you? The future of the economy may well be at stake.

Peter Todd:

Mobile computing is particularly adapted to the way managers work, and that goes some distance to explaining the tremendous success of the BlackBerry and the increasing proliferation of smart phones among managers. Usefulness of a technology is known to be at the core of a decision to adopt.

But we also know that every new technology has both intended (and presumably beneficial) effects, and unintended consequences that are often negative.

So what is the reality for wireless computing and communication tools? Do they allow managers to better cope with the demands on their attention and leverage brief moments in time between interruptions to complete tasks? Or do they drive managers to an even more frenzied level of fragmentation, pushing away any meaningful time for thought and reflection to the point where they can only manage at the level of the Tweet?

The not surprising answer is: it depends. It depends on how we harness the technology, making it work for us rather than us for it.

Control involves making sensible choices about how to use mobile devices and communication technology. It is important to realize that there are times to text, to send email, and perhaps even to Tweet, but there are also times to talk and times to get in an airplane (as disagreeable as that has become). Personal interaction remains the basis on which we build trust, create shared vision, motivate and empower.

But the technology affords the opportunity to create managerial white space – time saved from other activities that can be used for reflection.

At the same time, email can bring us too much information. Someone who handles 100 e-mails per day as they arrive would need to deal with 100 small tasks each day, or one every five minutes or so in an eight-hour work day. Such constant distraction probably hurts more than it helps productivity and effectiveness.

Alternatively, some may judiciously maintain focus on the tasks at hand and deal with email in the last 100 minutes of the day. They are likely tired and face the daunting challenge of responding to not only the urgent and the important but also the inane. Productivity will likely be low and this may be when error begins to creep in most.

So how can you manage?

Here are some strategies:

Reduce the messages you send. This is the way to make sure you are not part of the problem. The more traffic you put on a network and the more people you involve in a communication the more email you should expect to deal with. Count not just the number of messages you send in a day but the number of people you include on those messages. Do what you can to reduce the number of email you send to those that are important and relevant.

Control via technological assistants. Fight fire with fire. The technology itself has built-in mechanisms for regulating and organizing information flow. Few managers take good advantage of these. Filters and rules can be used to sort and prioritize incoming messages

Block off time. You can choose to respond to emails only within certain windows of time in the day and to block ‘no email, no meeting, no call times’ in your calendar.

Turn off prompts. Even more simply, turn off message prompts and turn on your out-of-office message (whether you are or are not) to let people know responses may be delayed.

Create a fresh start. Those who feel completely overwhelmed and hopelessly behind have sometimes taken to declaring ‘email bankruptcy’; out with the old email address and in with a new one. With that fresh start there is a possibility to develop better habits about how to send, receive and respond to messages.

Power down. If all else fails, remember: it does have an Off button.

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