Quocirca's Straight Talking: Anti-social emailing is bad for business
Addicts may take their CrackBerrys on holiday and even up to bed. But there's nothing wrong with the core technology, says Rob Bamforth - at least nothing a touch of mobile netiquette won't put right.
As the mobile industry started its grand annual event, Mobile World Congress, in Barcelona last week a breakdown in the BlackBerry email service meant many thumb-weary executives had an enforced break from their mobile email habit.
The device is often called the CrackBerry because it's so addictive. BlackBerry users develop a reliance on frequent email hits - and withdrawal is serious.
This three-hour breakdown hit North America and was apparently the second in less than 12 months to be caused by the same problem - a system upgrade in the network operations centre in Canada. One can only imagine the flood of pent-up message-reply demand after the service outage was fixed.
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As the number of mobile email users has grown rapidly in recent years - along with their increasing dependency - the impact of any loss of service is greatly magnified.
Take the hard-pressed IT manager. The almost continuous operation of IT systems is taken as a given in many organisations.
When IT applications decentralised onto the PC, there was a time when the office desktop was mostly autonomous and operated independently from the network. Intermittent service may not even have been noticed.
Open standards and universal connectivity have now rendered the network critical and visible to almost any application. This is especially the case with email and, in particular, mobile email.
Many an executive has assessed IT departmental efficiency based on whether or not they are receiving emails on their BlackBerry. Faults like this recent one are outside an IT manager's control but no doubt they will still bear the brunt of blame from users.
Then there're those emails that the BlackBerry wielder has shot from the hip - literally and figuratively - with insufficient screen real estate for broad viewing, time for consideration, or a real keyboard capable of framing an unambiguous response.
The only mitigation is the sender's explanatory signature line of "sent from my BlackBerry".
Deskbound recipients have to put up with the constant drip of terse one-liners from users who appear unconcerned that their idle moments might not correspond with those of their colleagues - thereby constantly distracting or interrupting their work patterns.
Finally there's the impact of the outage on the BlackBerry user. Many complain about not being able to switch it off and there is the expectation from others that BlackBerry owners are always contactable.
It's becoming quite common to take a BlackBerry on holiday and some no doubt are carried up to bed. Of course the user would argue these practices make them more responsive, with decisions being made in real-time and customers or other external parties more involved in the process.
The question is, are those quick responses the right ones or best ones in all situations? Are CrackBerry addicts losing the ability to differentiate "important" from "urgent"? This ability is tested to the limit when the user is deprived of a service they have come to rely on heavily.
The answer lies not in faults with the core technology or - save the odd system-wide crash - in the implementation. It lies primarily in the ways in which people are managed - mobile users and their more stationary peers - and what expectations are set.
Getting these right is not only going to benefit BlackBerry-wielding executives but also the wider workforce as they all become increasingly mobile.
As more applications become network-accessible and relied on by mobile workers, their use becomes embedded in critical-business processes. So it become even more vital to understand how technology use intersects with the working practices and business processes of individuals and the organisation.
Technology, in particular personal communications technology, should support, improve and extend established working processes, rather than trying to invent brand-new ones.
That's not to say it is impossible to create new processes but it does require a wider more strategic business process re-engineering assessment to take place, and most mobile deployments are tactically driven.
Quocirca research has shown that about a quarter of large European companies will retro-fit a strategy after making mobile deployments, a figure that has remained consistent for several years.
As part of the supporting, improving and extending of established processes, those using the technology need sufficient guidance to make the best use of what it can offer.
They must not be sucked into bad habits or behaviour that their colleagues may regard as anti-social - in short, good 'mobile netiquette'.
In the days of LOL and L33T, it might seem somewhat quaint to think about etiquette and the art of effective communication but from a business perspective it is critical.
Not only it is important that mobile workers and their colleagues do not feel they are being unnecessarily overloaded but mobile technology must be able to deliver its main business benefit - productivity.
Individual responsiveness is all well and good but the final measure of productivity is on the corporate bottom line, which takes into account everybody - mobile user, stationary colleagues and the IT manager.
A leading user-facing analyst house known for its focus on the big picture, Quocirca is made up of a team of experts in technology and its business implications. The team includes Clive Longbottom, Bob Tarzey, Rob Bamforth, Dennis Szubert, Louella Fernandes and Fran Howarth. Their series of columns for silicon.com seeks to demystify the latest jargon and business thinking. For a full summary of the consultancy's activities, see www.quocirca.com.