University of Texas at Austin

Monday, July 20, 2009

Going mobile in meetings

Jenn Davis and Keri Stephens

Jenn Davis and Keri Stephens

Keri Stephens, an assistant professor of communications studies, is in the midst of a research project investigating how people in organizations—businesses, nonprofits, schools and others—use cell phones, smart phones, pagers and similar devices.

Her first results show that when people use their devices in meetings they do so because they see other people doing it. Or if others aren’t using the devices, they won’t either.

Going in, Stephens and her co-author Jenn Davis thought that people were texting and e-mailing and sending tweets during meetings because they were trying to keep up with the information that floods into their electronics in-boxes.

It turned out that wasn’t the case.

“There’s no correlation between that data. Not even close. Not even a ballpark,” she says. “However, 50 percent of the variance is explained in how others view the use of this electronic multitasking. In a social scientific study that’s a whole lot for essentially one category of variables to explain.”

Stephens, who has been on the faculty since 2005, has had a long interest in the use of technology in organizational communications. And she writes a blog about it.

She worked several years for Hewlett-Packard Inc. after she received her bachelor’s of science degree in biochemistry. She explained H-P technology to customers. That meant spending a lot of time in the car going from customer to customer.

In those days (the ’90s) she had a bag phone, which was a mobile phone that came in a briefcase-sized bag and plugged into the lighter outlet in the car. She’s used pagers and the more modern versions of cell phones.

“I experienced a lot of the growing pains with those technologies,” Stephens says. “Now I see exactly the same thing happening with mobile devices in an organizational context. I think this is growing-pain period.”

Much of the commentary on mobile devices is from an etiquette perspective and seems to weigh heavily in favor of banning them from meetings, she says.

“I don’t think that’s the solution,” she says. “I’m looking for more depth and understanding.”

Mobile devices can be valuable in meetings to get information not available in the room. They can even provide an outlet for bored and frustrated people in the meeting, not necessarily a bad thing.

She hopes her research will help organizations sort through their attitudes and policies about communications technologies and help employees, too.

“I really think that many organizations don’t even realize how much they’re being used by their employees because a lot of organizations aren’t paying for them,” she says. “I think the issue’s only going to grow.”

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