My last blog post argued that colleagues who come to a meeting with a paper notebook instead of a digital device are wasting their own time and that of their colleagues. That argument met with a small uproar here and on Twitter, where many readers were outraged by the idea of prescribing or proscribing a particular approach to note-taking, even if there were also those who welcomed my assault on paper.
"Why not consider the fact that people process information differently and have respect for the fact that not everyone operates in a single fashion?" asked one not-atypical comment. As Becki True put it, "[l]et's judge people's effectiveness on their results, and not on their methods." Or as Scott Berkun wrote on his own blog, "[i]t's only after I see what people produce that I'd consider commentary on the means they used."
Yet in meeting rooms, committees and workshops across the U.S. and around the world, people have their working styles dictated all the time. Not by colleagues who would prod them into the brave new world of digital notebooks, but by managers and meeting chairs who forbid them from using their core work tools: laptops, smartphones, tablets and even specific kinds of applications (like social media tools)
If we're outraged at the idea of stigmatizing paper, shouldn't we be at least as outraged by rules like these? After all, the tech-banners aren't simply asking us to bring paper in addition to our digital tools; they're trying to keep laptops, smartphones and tablets out of the meeting room altogether. In an effort to patrol technology use in meetings, classes and conferences, we get recommendations and policies like:
- "Collect all smartphones and laptops in a box".
- "Walk around during the session and stand near any violators" [of the no-PDA rule].
- "If you bring your laptop to class, then you are required to upload your notes to the course dropbox (or email them to me if the dropbox is unavailable) — immediately after class. Failure to do so will result in an absence."
And these documented anti-tech policies are just the tip of the iceberg. Who hasn't been in a meeting or workshop where you're asked to keep your laptop or phone in your briefcase? More common still are the many workplaces where colleagues look askance at the laptop on the boardroom table, even if it's there to record next actions in a meeting that is more planning session than brainstorm.
If we see banning or stigmatizing laptops and smartphones as fundamentally different (and more acceptable) than banning paper, it's for one of three reasons: we still see paper as the norm and digital as the invader; we see handwriting as superior and worry that digital tools are making us forgetful or stupid; or we suspect that tech-laden colleagues are multitasking instead of engaging in a meeting with the attention it's due. To advance either of the first two arguments we have to abandon the principle of "to each their own" that found such ardent defenders last week; to advance the third, we must abandon that principle and instead embrace the idea that as colleagues, we are accountable to one another for the quality of work we do in a meeting and the tools that help or inhibit that work.
My own view is that in any meeting where notes are taken -- that is, any meeting to which someone might bring a notebook or laptop rather than walk in empty-handed for an unencumbered conversation -- digital tools are essential (even if they are used in addition to, rather than instead of, paper).
If we want to agree that each and every one of us should be free to choose our own best way of working and our best tools for doing that work, I'll stifle my critique of the colleague who shows up to a meeting carrying only a paper notebook. But I hope that when I or any other digital note-taker gets told to put away their laptop or smartphone, our ability to choose our own work tools will get a defense that's every bit as passionate as the arguments that have unfolded here.