When Smartphones Undermine Essential Business Skills

Adults have been complaining about the decline of arithmetic skills since students began relying on pocket calculators in the 1970s. When personal computers became widely adopted in the 1980s, they complained that keyboards contributed to the loss of handwriting skills. Then in the 1990s, when spell- and grammar-checkers become popular, people complained about the demise of spelling and proofreading skills.

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Smartphones contain all of the tools above plus many others. Since 2000, smartphones have become so ubiquitous, even among young children, that they are affecting the way we conduct business.

The Big Questions

Despite their undeniable benefits, do smartphones sometimes undermine essential business skills? If so, how?

The Dumb Side of Smartphones

I recently asked a group of business owners and academics this question and got an earful. Below is a small sample of their answers.

  • A librarian told me students are so addicted to Internet browsers and search engines that they are not learning how to use libraries. She worries that this blocks them from using knowledge accumulated before the digital age and from using current information that may not be online.
  • A restaurant owner complained that her cooks were having trouble reading orders placed by young waiters and waitresses who had better texting than writing skills.
  • A retailer complained that his clerks were so dependent on the calculators on smartphones that they could not make accurate change unless the cash register told them what to give back.
  • A pharmacist complained that his younger employees could no longer visualize quantities associated with prescriptions because they could no longer do simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division in their heads.
  • A store manager complained that over-reliance on calculators (which express quantities solely in terms of numbers) blinded young people to other ways of expressing numeric values. He overheard a customer ask one of his employees for a dozen eggs. The employee said, “We don’t have a dozen. We only sell cartons of 6 or 12.”
  • A delivery-service owner told me about an employee who relied on his cell phone’s turn-by-turn navigation. When the phone’s battery went dead, the employee wound up on the wrong side of town even though he had a key map.
  • A physician was late filing urgent pathology reports because her transcriptionist couldn’t access her medical spell-checker during a system changeover.
  • An owner of a service company complained that clients rarely answered phone calls anymore. They replied to questions with texts while they were in meetings. Problem? They rarely read past the first line of an email to get the full gist.
  • Many owners complained about multitasking-induced errors, i.e., that employees were distracted by texts and emails when they should have been attending to business.
  • Many owners worried about the loss of productivity because people were spending too much time on social networks during work hours.
  • An owner of a company that relied on research felt the convenience of search engines caused many people to confuse thorough, valid analysis with quick, easy answers.
  • Another retailer worried that many young cashiers don’t even look at customers anymore. “They simply stare at their screens and push a button that dispenses change.” He worried that the “personal touch” was being replaced with emotionless transactions that left customers cold, inviting them to go somewhere else.

Despite these problems, we need to recognize and applaud the wonderful things that smartphones enable us to do. Imagine how dull life would be if it weren’t for texting while accounting.

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