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BlackBerry use in a small firm: Empowerment at a cost -- compulsion to check for messages, life without downtime

August 1, 2006

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, HHaimowitz@aol.com

In a small private-equity firm that provides its entire investment staff and senior support staff with BlackBerries, 90% of the individuals interviewed report some degree of compulsion when describing behavior with the device.

As one of the principals of Plymouth Investments puts it, trying to explain his inability to refrain from checking his BlackBerry in the middle of the night when a deal is in the works: "You're sort of constantly tied... [M]y wife will wake up at three or four in the morning and I'll be checking my BlackBerry or sending something. Yeah, it's that sort of addictive."

And even during a quiet period at work, the compulsion remains, as one junior associate explains: "[I]t's hard for me to believe I would have gotten an email from anybody here at 11 at night that would have really needed a response before I went to bed...I would always still check it just to know. Partly out of curiosity and partly, I don't really know how to describe it."

But the wife of one of the firm's principals thinks she does know: "[I]t is like pulling the lever of a slot machine," she says. "[T]here is that sense of anticipation and potential gain that you get from checking. I think that's the addictive part."

The study, presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Atlanta this month, is among the first scholarly examinations of the effects of this new technology on users, who now number more than 5 million. The researchers, Melissa Mazmanian, Wanda J. Orlikowski, and JoAnne Yates of MIT's Sloan School of Management, conducted in-depth interviews on BlackBerry use with 23 principals, partners and staff of the private-equity firm, in addition to five spouses, and, also reviewed in detail 16 of these individuals' BlackBerry email activity over one to three days.

The authors found BlackBerry use to be a balance of empowering and disempowering forces. In their words, "After four years of use, the overall positive reaction to the BlackBerry is striking. A significant majority of users emphasize that they love their BlackBerries." But at the same time "nearly half of the users report some long-term negative consequences associated with carrying a BlackBerry."

There is, in addition to the compulsion to check from messages, the sense that, as one principal puts it, the device "doesn't allow you any downtime." Another principal makes a similar point when he asks, "[A]t what point of your day does the workday end? This tool makes it difficult for that workday to end...until I go to bed." Meanwhile, a junior associate finds expectations of responsiveness to messages to be as great on nights and weekends as they are during normal work hours, reflecting the development of assumptions among users that each individual will constantly monitor email.

Such concerns lead the study's authors to suggest that the firm's "clear values of work-life balance, where individuals throughout the hierarchy have autonomy and respect," are being frustrated to a significant degree by BlackBerries. They conclude on this cautionary note:

"As BlackBerry use becomes ubiquitous in organizations (and throughout industries), individuals feel compelled to connect constantly. In order to keep up with evolving communication norms of availability and responsiveness, users lose control over the very device which is experienced as providing control over incoming information. For employees at Plymouth, the positive experience of staying connected mitigated the negative impacts of BlackBerry use. However, it is likely that in firms less concerned with employee well-being, the empowering aspects of the BlackBerry would be less prevalent."

The paper, entitled "Ubiquitous EMail: Individual Experiences and Organizational Consequences of BlackBerry Use," was among thousands of studies presented at the Academy of Management meeting Aug. 13-16. Marking its 70th birthday this year, the organization is the largest in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has close to 17,000 members in 92 countries, including some 10,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting drew about 7,000 scholars and practitioners to Atlanta for nearly 1,500 sessions on a host of subjects relating to corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.

Media Coverage:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Business-oriented academics ready to weigh weighty issues. (Saturday, August 12, 2006).
The Independent (UK). CrackBerry Addicts. (Sunday, October 01, 2006).

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