Mimi Browning | Executive Suite: Time to lay down the law on bad tech behavior

Mimi Browning

New York City continues to burnish its reputation as a world-class city. Its rules for civility across a wide spectrum of public activities'sports events, subway rides and public cell phone use'are having an impact on its citizens. New York City rules are clear and unambiguous: $50 fine on callers who dial up on their cell phones during a Broadway show, $50 fine on subway riders who rest their feet on a seat, and arrests for fans who interfere with professional sports events.

With New York as a role model, now is the time for the IT community to raise the bar for civilized technology citizenship. Who isn't sick and tired of the workmate who is glued to his/her cell phone 24/7, or of the personal digital assistant and notebook PC addicts who boorishly type away during meetings? Not only is common courtesy being crushed, but electrons are getting in the way of essential social behaviors that build trust, collaboration and team cohesion'all key ingredients for professional and personal success.

I recently attended a major technology conference, and the first words out of the mouth of the keynote speaker, a high-ranking government official, were: 'Please turn off your PDAs and laptops because I have important information to tell you.'

A proposed scheme to move the civilized use of technology forward for the greater good of humanity consists of an analog part and a digital part. The analog part recommends the addition of a technology civility metric for annual performance reviews (for those of us who work for someone else). The digital part recommends that all future PDAs, cell phones and notebooks are manufactured with two additional buttons: an EB (Egregious Behavior) button and an OR (Over Ride) button. More about their use in a moment.

Just as we were measured in grade school on 'gets along with others,' we need to establish a critical success metric in annual appraisals such as 'exhibits civilized behavior in the use of technology.' Demonstrations of this behavior can include novel ideals such as, 'puts people and the organization first'; 'understands leadership is about motivating people, not cell phones' and 'focuses on priorities, not on obsessively answering e-mail.' This civility metric would have four competency levels'exceeds, meets, partially meets and forbidden to use any PDA, notebook or cell phone for one month or until behavior improves.

Now for the neat technology fix: the EB and OR buttons. The EB button would be used to report bad behavior such as interrupting conversations for irrelevant chitchat, dangerous moving-vehicle actions and blatant disrespect for speakers. The EB button would have the capability to ping the nearest offending device, sending a signal to the communications carrier, which translates the ping into a central database record.

The OR button would cost $20 each time it is used and would have the capability to respond to the ping, protesting the egregious behavior. (There clearly will have to be exceptions for boring speakers, genuine emergencies, etc.) On monthly billing statements, customers with no EB pings get a discount, and, of course, those with EB pings and/or OB charges will have a higher bill to pay.

Finally, if these two recommendations fail, perhaps we can ask the mayor of New York City to intercede on behalf of the IT community (a digitally vocal group, especially during election seasons).

As a start and for the greater good of better technology citizenship, let's suggest that he fine all sports fans using PDAs, cell phones and notebooks in the bottom half of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium.

Mimi Browning is a former Army senior executive who currently is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. of McLean, Va. She can be reached at browning_miriam@bah.com.

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