Train wreck caused by text messaging? Multiple news reports have raised the possibility that the conductor of a Los Angeles train was sending text messages just before the train crashed and many were killed. The questions under investigation are whether this is true and whether the conductor was distracted by it when he should have seen red light signals indicating the hazard ahead.
This is the saddest outcome of an issue I, and others, have been raising for years. The use of technology for non-work activities has pervaded the work environment to the extent that it is impacting work performance. The obvious problem is lost revenue and reduced profits to the employer, but sometimes it correlates to increased liability. If true in this case, it means lost lives.
If the shopclerk with an mp3 player or cellphone in the ear is too distracted to answer questions accurately or make correct change, what makes me think my car mechanic, stock broker, or doctor's lab technician isn't? In 2006, eDiscovery companies were estimating that one quarter to one third of all emails flowing through a corporation were personal email. At the time, I wrote about the thousands of football and fantasy football gambling emails that had passed through Enron. I also wrote about the dirty jokes, hook ups, and other sex emails there.
It's getting technically easier to discover that people aren't really working when they claim to be. This summer before lecturing at a state bar convenion, I stood in the back of the large hall and observed what people were doing. I explained the ways I could prove that they had been using their laptops, blackberries, and iphones to shop on the web, play video poker, and text friends and family. I explained how, In the not-to-distant-future, these activities will probably void the professional certification credit they thought they were earning by being present but not paying attention.
This week's train wreck brings more attention to the debate about just how much people's attention is diverted and what the consequences can be. At a New York panel discussion last fall, a group of senior financial industry compliance managers uniformly said they weren't concerned about personal web, email, and phone use at work. Perhaps they ought to be.