Have you noticed a no-so-subtle change in how meetings are conducted these days? Now that more and more people come to meetings with their electronic tether, it is harder to conduct business and keep everyone's attention. We have become adept at managing concurrent (or nearly so) communications streams of laptop, palmtop, cell phone, beeper and so forth. Or maybe not so adept - more on that in moment while I slip in a few other ideas. Unfortunately, this email or web page is a single thread for now.
My first brush with multitasking meetings was working with my staff at Network Computing many years ago. We had just gotten a few wireless email devices. When several editors brought them to meetings and started firing off messages to each other, it was quite a disruption. We had to turn the darn things off to get any work done. What was unusual back then is now fairly common. The number of wireless devices has exploded. Most European cell phones support short message service and its use is quite popular there. This is just catching on here in the States, but even more troubling is that AOL will offer Instant Messaging via certain cell phones. The potential for everyone to be multitasking all the time is upon us!
At one regular series of meetings, one participant would use his time to keep up with his stock portfolio on his laptop. Nice to be so current with your holdings, but it meant he was a part-time participant.
Meetings aren't the only place this is happening. What about college classrooms where more and kids come with their laptops to take notes? Some classrooms have Internet Ethernet jacks by each desk, so that every student can plug in, tune in to something else going on over the Net, and drop out from the class discussion around him or her. What used to be a relatively simple problem of passing handwritten notes around class, out of sight of the teacher, now takes place electronically via chat sessions, emails, and web postings. Why come to class, especially if the teacher has already recorded his lecture on a CD ROM?
And what about multitasking entertainment situations? Back in the old, pre-Internet days, you just had to worry about sitting near a loud-mouthed boor who wouldn't keep quiet during a performance. But now we are treated to the ringing from some clod's ringing cell phone as well as these constant talkers. At one Broadway show I attended not too long ago, one actor actually stepped out of character to admonish an audience member and tell him to turn the thing off. My favorite take on this is a commercial for Skytel, taking place at an opera where the diva sends her spear through the guy's cell phone, while another audience member silently types into his two-way pager: "opera just got more interesting." Of course, this just replaces one kind of multitasking operation with another one, albeit one that doesn't prevent other audience members from enjoying the show.
Last night my wife and I wanted to watch The Sopranos, which took place (in our time zone) during the Oscars. We watched the opening of the awards, switched over to The Sopranos, then returned to the awards an hour later. Not to worry -- we checked oscars.com and see which awards we missed in the intervening hour.
Welcome to the multitasking meeting. I am not so sure this a good thing. Yes, we can do more things almost at once, without having to miss that important phone call or email or even the award for best supporting actress. But doesn't this all come at a price? It is hard enough to get anyone to pay attention when you are just sitting across from them, face to face, without all the associated electronic accoutrements of cell phone, pager, wireless Palm handheld and the like.
So consider this plea for going back to the old ways of being just single-tasking humans. Turn off those cell phones every now and then, especially in the evenings at large entertainment events. Go to your next meeting with nothing more than a pad of paper and see if you can come away with the most important issues and action items captured this way. And maybe if you are so concerned about being multitasking during your next meeting, you might consider whether the meeting is really necessary.
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