Time management in a BlackBerry world

Public CIOs run big agencies between a thumb and the palm of their hand

Chief information officers take pride in being good managers. But when it comes to managing their own time, they are not especially happy with the results. Yet few CIOs express any interest in taking time out of their busy schedules to consider how they might optimize their time in 2006.

"That would actually take time, which we don't have," said Corey Booth, the Securities and Exchange Commission's CIO. "I don't think any executive who is working hard finds this an easy problem."

Are CIOs time-starved? Is their job stressful? Yes and yes, according to several federal and state CIOs interviewed about how they manage their time. CIOs rarely complain about time demands that would push the rest of us to rebellion. Many say they simply accept putting the demands of their job ahead of preserving their personal time. "I guess I never assumed that I have personal time," Booth said.

For many CIOs, unfettered personal time has all but disappeared in the age of the Research in Motion BlackBerry, a communications-hub-in-hand that serves as computer, phone and pager. Some CIOs keep their BlackBerries on and nearby at all times. They rely on the gadgets to solve their time-management problems.

David Freeland was deputy commissioner for management information systems at the Texas Department of Human Services. He didn't carry a BlackBerry until about nine months ago when he became the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's CIO. Freeland said he had to adjust to around-the-clock accessibility via such gadgetry. Now he is acclimated. "I always had mobile phones, but I've found text messaging a little more convenient to use in a lot of situations," he said.

Robert Otto, chief technology officer at the U.S. Postal Service, carries a BlackBerry at all times. So do 5,700 other USPS officers, executives and frontline managers. It is their e-mail, text-messaging and Web access terminal. It is also their phone and pager. USPS has gone a step further, however, and provisioned the BlackBerry so that postal executives can use it to access the USPS intranet and internal Web pages, employee contact information and emergency response instructions. Executives and managers can also use it to approve purchases, travel vouchers and data access requests.

Otto's all-in-one device for managing the time demands of his job contrasts sharply with Thomas Jarrett's pocketful of devices. Jarrett, CIO at the Delaware Department of Technology and Information, carries two pagers, a BlackBerry and a cell phone. "I like the diversity," he said. But all that connectivity back to the office has a downside -- actually, several downsides. "Talking on the phone is one thing, but checking messages while you're driving is somewhat different" and more dangerous, he said. "I've caught myself doing it."

Paul Strassmann, former director of defense information at the Defense Department, is more a foe than a friend of handheld devices. When people reach for their little devices and begin thumbing during a meeting, he is offended. Pulling out a BlackBerry during a policy review or a board meeting shows contempt, he said. "These people who constantly twitch and thumb should listen," he said.

Strassmann, an independent consultant, is convinced that CIOs' reliance on their electronic gadgets often leads to hurried and bad decisions. "BlackBerries encourage knee-jerk reactions," he said.

Others have concerns about their use. Richard Israel worries that over-reliance on such equipment diminishes people's mental abilities. "The more you rely on these external devices, the less you rely on your own internal memory. It's like a lazy man's memory," said Israel, a Miami-based management consultant. And as for those hard-working CIOs who keep their BlackBerries on at all times, they haven't learned to shift gears, he said. "What that's telling us is their lives are out of balance."

Overworked CIOs who are stuck in second gear should realize when they need to shift into third gear, Israel said, using a metaphor from a new book on executive leadership, "Shifting Gears," which he wrote with business coach Susan Ford Collins.

No such warnings could undermine Otto's faith in the utility of a handheld computer device. "It allows me to have a life while staying in touch with the organization I lead," Otto said.

However, CIOs' spouses have their own view of the time-management devices. Jarrett, for example, said his family doesn't appreciate that he is accessible via electronic gadgetry at all times. "My wife feels violated. She hates it," he said.

Other spouses would prefer that handheld computers play a less prominent role in the lives of their favorite CIOs. Karen Hogan, who is the Commerce Department's deputy and acting CIO, carries a blue BlackBerry that she keeps on at all times. "I call it a blueberry," she said. "My husband's jealous of it."

Coming from the private sector to the SEC, Booth finds it somewhat easier to manage his time and create balance in his life. Before he left his corporate job to become a public CIO, his BlackBerry "was going off much more often," he said. "I was working much later into the night, so this seems to be a complete reprieve."

CIOs rely on electronic gadgets to minimize communications delays. When someone hacks into the agency's network or a trusted employee absconds with database keys, CIOs want to know about it right away -- in real time, as they say. And the BlackBerry makes it possible.

Hogan typically uses hers in more ordinary circumstances, such as keeping tabs on weekend activities. "If we're doing weekend work on the network, for instance, I can see what the progress report is, and then I don't worry about it so much," she said.

BlackBerry-connected CIOs and their executive assistants can keep CIOs' calendars synchronized and current, despite changes throughout the day. "Most of my meetings are probably 30 minutes, but there are times when I have 15-minute blocks," Freeland said. "Time management at that level is a little tricky, but I have found that you have to be able to do that at times."

Freeland said there is something better than a BlackBerry, however, for helping CIOs manage time and be strategic leaders: a deputy CIO. "I have a very strong deputy who is handling most of the day-to-day operations," he said. "That split allows me time to do the strategic thinking."

Strassmann reasons that everything has a time and place, including the BlackBerry. "The worst thing you could do if you were a CIO of the Department of Defense is to carry a BlackBerry because then you are never going to get done the job you are supposed to do," he said. "You don't straighten out political conflict with BlackBerries. You may actually have to go golfing with people."

For Strassmann, time management is a serious concern. "All you get in the world is a short time on this earth," he said. "If you're going to live your four-score years, you'd better decide how you're going to spend it. Spending much of it on the BlackBerry somehow doesn't inspire me."

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