Blackberry Jam

How wireless e-mail devices are taking over the lives of some federal executives.

Four years ago, the only image conjured by the word "blackberry" was a small fruit. Then, suddenly, it took on a whole new meaning as the name of the little gadget that allowed cutting-edge technophiles to stay in e-mail contact from virtually anywhere. Now BlackBerry addicts are so obsessive about the device that they've given it a new name-CrackBerry-for the person who can't imagine functioning without his or her pocket-size portal to the world.

And many federal agencies, which are not always perceived as being at the forefront of the technological revolution, are jumping on the BlackBerry bandwagon with gusto. "I personally couldn't live without one," says Kim Nelson, chief information officer for the Environmental Protection Agency. "I think it's the greatest technical innovation. A lot of people complain about new systems, but BlackBerrys are almost universally raved about."

For the uninitiated, BlackBerrys are a brand of palm-size wireless computers that can connect to the Internet, send and receive e-mail, download and store documents, and serve as an address book. Newer models incorporate a cell phone, too. The devices, manufactured by Canadian company Research in Motion (RIM), cost between $250 and $600, depending on the features. They operate through phone services such as AT&T, Cingular and Verizon.

While other firms also offer personal digital assistants that can be used to access e-mail and surf the Web, the BlackBerry is the first to gain a widespread-and fanatical-following. There are no figures available on the number of BlackBerrys in use throughout the federal government, but numerous agencies have, over the past several years, started buying them in bulk and handing them out to senior executives. RIM says that of its 1.3 million BlackBerry customers worldwide, 100,000 are local, state and federal government personnel. The company counts among its customers the Justice, Defense and Homeland Security departments and the U.S. Postal Service.

For many users, BlackBerrys have become a timesaver and a lifesaver, allowing them to answer e-mails and respond to office needs while on the road or in airports and hotel rooms. Some go so far as to say the devices have transformed their agencies' operations.

"I picked up this thing, understood how it worked, and realized that it would change the lives of executives at the EPA-and frankly that's how it turned out," says Rick Martin, deputy director of information analysis in the EPA's Office of Environmental Information. For instance, Martin says, now when an employee leaves the office for vacation or business travel, there is no longer much need to designate a colleague to take over. "It's reduced the need for extensive backup," he says.

The devices also increase managers' flexibility, users say. Not only can they respond to e-mails while on the go, but they also can update their schedules using the calendar function, eliminating the need to call back and forth to a secretary. Robert Otto, vice president and chief technology officer for the Postal Service, says managers are now allowed to approve travel vouchers and purchases on their BlackBerrys rather than by using laptop computers.

Others, however, complain that BlackBerrys have become leashes that bind them to work 24 hours a day-whether they like it or not-and that the devices can become so addictive that they interfere with family time. "I still believe the premise that someone in my position is entitled to some personal time," says one Defense Department employee, who asked that her name not be used. "I've had guys say they'd kill for one, but I don't like the fact that I am electronically tethered 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Always On

Most people acknowledge that Black-Berrys have advantages and disadvantages, but for many, including Otto, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Several years ago, after he became a convert, Otto started giving BlackBerrys to his information technology staff, "because I believe in eating my own dog food." The devices were very popular, and now 4,000 have been distributed agencywide. Otto expects that number will rise to 6,000 by next year. "Twenty-five of my managers were recently in Romania and using their BlackBerrys to e-mail back and forth," he says enthusiastically.

BlackBerrys have proved useful during emergencies, because the data sent to and from the devices rely on servers and satellite networks different from the ones cell phones use. During the August 2003 blackout in the Northeast and the recent hurricanes in the South, BlackBerrys were the only way postal employees could communicate, Otto says. BlackBerrys also were the only communication tools some agencies had that worked during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But Otto acknowledges that the devices can take a toll on spouses and children. "I've had managers' wives come up to me and say they hate me," he says. "They say their husbands pay more attention to their BlackBerrys than to [them] at dinner." His response? "I say [to managers], 'I gave you the opportunity. If you don't want to use it after 5:30 p.m., turn it off.' "

Michael Miller, chief technology officer of the National Defense University's Information Resource Management College and a devoted BlackBerry user, agrees. "People have to develop the discipline to turn them off," he says. "Having the capability brings with it some self-monitoring. You need to take control of the technology."

Miller, who is a cognitive psychologist by training, says he has set his BlackBerry so it automatically shuts off at 10 p.m. and on weekends. But many people say switching off is not as easy as it sounds. Peer pressure and expectations from above often make it difficult for an individual to set limits. "There is a blurring of distinction between work time and rest time," says Donald Tepas, professor emeritus of industrial psychology at the University of Connecticut. "With BlackBerrys and cell phones, it is easy to involve the workplace tasks and duties in areas where they normally would not be involved."

Tepas says, "None of these things are all good or all bad, but they were introduced into the workplace without thinking about it." What is needed, he argues, is for employers to set some rules and regulations about when and how new technologies should be used.

BlackBerrys can be even more intrusive than cell phones, because it is more socially acceptable to send e-mail messages late at night or during meetings than to call someone. The spouse of a high-level political appointee in the Energy Department says that when her husband has his BlackBerry with him, "It often feels like another person is in the room. I don't feel like he gets away from work until he gets to a place where he can't get reception."

Instant Gratification

The BlackBerry's very accessibility and simplicity-unlike many gadgets, it is fairly easy to figure out how to use-also make people love it. The EPA's Martin says that several years ago he was looking for "a killer application that would shake off our reputation for pushing old and slow technology." In January 2001, he saw a BlackBerry demonstrated at a conference. He liked it and started a pilot program at EPA.

"Pretty soon certain senior managers began to take these things to executive meetings, and that's all it took," he says. "We got calls that one regional administrator had seen that another regional administrator had one" and soon the ball was rolling. Now Martin has distributed more than 2,000 BlackBerrys throughout the EPA.

Martin says that people who use BlackBerrys make better use of their time away from the office, and they get a heads-up on what's happening when they return. He acknowledges, however, that some aren't thrilled to be on call all the time. "To some extent, most of the people who say they don't want to be 'tethered' say it in a rueful way," he says. "There is an enhanced expectation of availability-it's a mixed bag."

Not only are people expected to be available, they are expected to be available immediately. Waiting even an hour or two for an answer can begin to seem annoying and even impolite to the BlackBerry user. Patrick Libbey, executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials and an avid BlackBerry fan, says, "We have unwittingly created a cultural expectation that everything will be read and responded to immediately. That's true with e-mail in general, and BlackBerrys accelerated that in that you can communicate in close to real time.

"I hear stories-and to me they're just that, stories-of people who can open their e-mails once in the morning and once in the evening," Libbey says. For him, that's almost unimaginable.

Control the Technology

The trick with BlackBerrys-as with any other communications tool-say experts, is learning how to prioritize your needs. "People feel pretty comfortable not answering the phone," says the National Defense University's Miller. "You need to control the technology rather than having the technology control you."

Even the Defense Department, which one might think would shy away from wireless technology for security reasons, is embracing BlackBerrys. "We did a pilot program in 2000 and 2001, and then with the change of administration, senior people came in and had experience in business with them, and they really liked them," says Linton Wells II, acting assistant secretary of Defense for networks and information integration and Defense CIO.

Defense worked with RIM to come up with appropriate standards for secure e-mail communication. And the department insisted that it be supplied with black devices, rather than the standard blue ones, to fit in with mandatory dress codes for uniformed service members.

Although BlackBerrys are not used in combat situations, they have become part of an overall movement aimed at making Defense more "networkcentric," Wells says. That means, in part, using modern technology to change the decision-making process to improve the speed, coordination and accuracy of military operations.

Wells uses his BlackBerry the same way most other executives use theirs: "I do a fair amount of traveling, and this way I don't come into the office to a tidal wave of information."

BlackBerrys have another, less publicized function. They provide a way to pass the time during dull meetings or less-than-scintillating conference presentations. "I remember the first time we figured out that we could send messages during meetings," says the EPA's Martin. "We were videoconferencing with our boss and comments were going back and forth. He was not using a BlackBerry then, and he lost his temper. He tried to ban BlackBerrys."

"The indicator of a good speaker is how many BlackBerrys are out," adds the EPA's Nelson. "When you see half-a-dozen BlackBerrys come out, it's time to end the meeting."

Of course, it can be very disconcerting for a speaker to look out at an audience and see a sea of heads bent over BlackBerrys. But Libbey sees it differently. "I can attend meetings and absorb information and read my BlackBerry at the same time," he says. "Talking on cell phones is rude, because it interferes with other people. Maybe we need to define what is rude."

Or maybe redefine what "free time" is. Martin offers a cautionary tale about bringing his trusted e-mail device on vacation. "I was on the fishing pier with my rod and BlackBerry," he says. Suddenly, Martin hooked a big fish and waded in to try to land it. He got the fish-but the BlackBerry got away.

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