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How to be the master and get the most from your BlackBerry

originally published in The Lawyers Weekly

Quick! Before you read this article, go online and find the one-minute demonstration of the BlackBerry Helmet as shown on TV’s The Rick Mercer Report.

Now that you’re back, complete this sentence: Rick Mercer is:

  • a very wealthy man once he markets this device, or
  • a satirical genius

If you even flirted with the first answer, chances are you’re not alone. Millions of corporate users give BlackBerry two thumbs up (if you can picture that), mainly for how the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) handles email. The BES is to the BlackBerry what iTunes is to Apple’s iPod – the system that directs desired data onto the device, which itself is a marvel of portability and convenience.

“We focus on enabling users to catch up during down time and be more productive,” said Tyler Lessard, Director for Alliances at Research in Motion. “Customers appreciate taking fewer things home to worry about on personal time.”

Even though competitors that run Windows Mobile, Symbian and Palm OS are widely available, to say nothing of Apple Inc.’s iPhone, Jason Cherniak sees little reason to investigate them. “BlackBerries are the standard,” said the Richmond Hill, Ontario litigator. “Why would you leave the standard unless you had good reason?”

Software developers have created third-party applications for the device. Some, like certain time- and expense tracking programs, are aimed at lawyers. However, Doug Cornelius stated that 95 per cent of his BlackBerry use is for checking email. “Everything else is of secondary importance,” said the Boston-based Senior Real Estate Attorney and Knowledge Management Attorney for Goodwin Procter LLP.

The devices are so important to businesses of all kinds that best practices have emerged for their use. Cornelius, for instance, password-protects his handheld, and by extension his firm’s and his clients’ information. He also puts his name and contact information on the login screen.

Once past security, email best practices apply much the same as they do in Outlook, according to workshop facilitator Tony Mancini of Priority Management Systems Inc. during the inaugural Toronto presentation of “Working Smart with BlackBerry” in May.

For instance, he suggested participants empty their inboxes before the end of each day, partly by turning emails into tasks and calendar events wherever appropriate.

Users can mark calendar entries “private” and view free/busy information from their handhelds as well.

The workshop also explained what the BlackBerry doesn’t do well. For instance, rules, folders and several other email software staples either don’t exist on the BlackBerry or are so limited that people can more easily set them using their computers.

Cherniak favours brief BlackBerry messages. Cornelius concurs, going to a computer when a response requires more thought. “I say just enough to keep the ball in the air,” he said.

What do colleagues and customers expect of you once you’re thumbed with a BlackBerry? Mancini suggested companies draft a “communications charter” to answer this question for all communications tools.

Like most complex electronic devices, the BlackBerry’d default settings may or may not prove useful. Mancini gave several setting tips, like making the unit’s convenience buttons trigger oft-used applications such as the calendar, the task list or voice dialling.

Other handy features include the ability to hide applications (like “shop-for-this-and-that” bloatware), and to move important applications to the top of the applications list.

Mancini also recommends people sync their BlackBerries with their computers as soon as they arrive in the office each morning and right before they leave.

If urgency defines your day, you might blame the sheer speed at which modern communications travel. “Back when Fedex was the way to communicate,” Cornelius reflected, “you had overnight to get your stuff together. Now people expect answers right away.”

Possessed of that urgency, many BlackBerry users quickly develop limber thumbs while they regrettably thumb their noses at social etiquette.

Turning the BlackBerry off during meetings may seem unthinkable, so Priority Management came up with a compromise: the company’s meetings start 20 minutes after the hour and go to the top of the next hour. “People must stay connected,” Mancini admitted, “so they can take 20 minutes to respond to messages between meetings.”

Cherniak, however, notes the lawyer’s responsibility in creating unnecessary urgency. “If you’re used to responding right away, people start to expect it,” he said.

“BlackBerries have added a lot of efficiency to practicing law, but they’ve also expanded the workday,” Cherniak added. “While they’re certainly a valuable tool, we have to be careful to not be governed by them.”

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