A guy at work many years ago spent most of his working hours talking on his cellphone. Being a salesman this was understandable but trying to have a face-to-face discussion was almost pointless since the cellphone always got top priority. As a result, the best way to get his undivided attention was to phone him, even from a range of a few metres.
Then, as now, there was debate about cellphone etiquette but it seems to have had little effect. Today the phones still ring in mid-meeting but even more frequent is the irresistable urge to check and answer e-mails, chatrooms or Facebook in meetings and even in negotiations or job interviews. A few weeks ago the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, was went so far as to confiscate a journalist's cellphone after being repeatedly interrupted during a press conference (see YouTube video).
There's an article on all this in the New York Times, Mind your Blackberry or mind your manners. The challenge in meetings today is to keep the group's attention otherwise all eyes will be focused downwards and the tip-tap on tiny keypads will begin. In defence of it all is the fact that today's customers want 24-hour access and if you don't answer then your competitor will. So you switch off at your peril.
Just as schools and universities complain about students' on-line activities during class time the executive world is far from immune. Companies seem equally at a loss as to how to restrict the use of technology in meetings and the hope is that common sense and consideration will eventually prevail. We often talk about kids having a short attention span but the rest of us are no better, happily zapping from one distraction to another rather than concentrate on the matter at hand. I'll admit I'm not immune either.
A new smart way of working or just a way of trying to impress each other with how effective we all are?