Over the last couple of weeks I've presented to three different technically sophisticated groups with extensive organizational experience. In all cases I was talking about strategies for virtual work – though the session was face to face. What was striking about these instances was that all but two of the participants (two total for all three groups) were taking notes on pad & paper, or on a copy of the handouts. In my MBA teaching, approximately 75% of the students are using their laptops to take notes. Why were these groups different? Is their learning result going to be better or worse as a result of how they took notes?

I explored the issue with all three groups. In all instances their surprised response was that they thought (or thought I would think) that they were being rude if they were working on their laptops. This is a beautiful instance of how sensemaking works – or doesn’t work – when you deal with technology and organizations. My colleagues and I have an article coming out focused on the intertwining of organization and technology features. We note that changes in how organizational activities occur given the rise of the Internet, and technology in organizations more broadly, “are not the result of information technologies per se, but in the combination of their features with organizational arrangements and practices that support their use.”

In my three example groups, given no information or tools to the contrary, they assumed that I was the presenter and that I would want their full attention. I did want their full attention on the topics, but not necessarily on me. If they take notes directly on their laptop I put a higher probability on their not losing their notes, and being able to find them when they are needed (by being able to use desktop search). I also believe that they could deepen their understanding by immediately checking on related websites I mention. There were also cases where I couldn’t remember a specific example, that had they been connected to the Internet, they could have easily found and shared with the rest of the group.

Thinking of two Fortune 100 companies I have experience with, I see two extremes for the use of laptops in face to face settings. At one organization, everyone is on-line, multi-tasking at all times. All you see from the presenter’s perspective is the top of their heads. At the other organization there is a strong norm to focus on the face to face interaction, with the laptop being an augmentation for taking notes, or getting specific, related information. I suspect, though I haven’t yet tested this hypothesis, that the second strategy is more effective.

In both the Fortune 100 cases, the technology is the same. The organizational norms are what are driving the different behaviors. Even non-users of the technologies participate in creating these norms. During a meeting last fall I was chided for “texting” when I should have been paying attention to the presenter. I was taking notes on the presenter’s comments on my smart phone. As I showed my notes to my concerned colleague, I asked him why he wasn't taking notes at all.

These norms do not need to randomly evolve, as was the case in my first three examples. The norms could be specifically set to suit the circumstance, and then reassessed throughout the process. It’s also important for the presenter/facilitator to adjust to the addition of Internet support. For my classes I include specific discussion of how technology can be used in class. I call on the class to self-monitor and to share more and less effective strategies. In more ad hoc settings I now raise the issue as a point in the presentation. Given my most recent experiences, I am going to include a slide immediately following the agenda with the following:

These focal comments are based on the ideas that the features that trigger sensemaking in one direction or another are likely to be “concrete” or “core” versus “abstract” or “tangential”. Pad & paper are concrete – they can be seen and are generally understood to be tools of note taking – though just as with any technology they could be used for creating sudokus instead. Laptops are known to be tools of note taking, but are perhaps better known as tools of email and eBay. Without a specific action, the sensemaking for their appropriate use in a presentation is likely to be pad & paper – good; laptop – bad. By creating a specific discussion point at the beginning of the presentation I can both highlight the concrete note taking and search capabilities, as well as making the process itself more core to the session. The group can then self design the most effective approach. Individuals may or may not use their laptops, individuals may request that their teammates share their electronic notes. The overall approach is likely to vary over the course of the session, but hopefully in a way that supports the best learning mode for each person. (For more on learning - both formal and informal - see my earlier post.)