This column update is on technology. Where we have been and where we are going with it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about technology and communication tools. We’re all being stretched for longer hours with more and more communication “tools” that you buy yourself or are given by your employer. Someone always seems to have cooler stuff than you. But how much is enough and how much is too much? Are the tools (or “toys”) controlling us or are we truly getting the most from them?

Back in the day
A few years ago I talked with my father about how business had been done before Fed Ex and fax machines. When your workday was done, it was over, and you dug back in the next day. Salesmen had a rolodex, and it didn’t come with software. You had a big stack of biz cards with a rubber band around them, a note pad along with some catalogs and a sample kit.

There weren’t reminders on your PDA of customer likes and dislikes, no PDFs of product specs, no DVD training guides, etc. Twice a day you stopped your car at a pay phone and called in for your messages, returning calls while muscling down a greasy burger.

I revisited this conversation a few weeks ago with dad while he was in the hospital recuperating from some surgery. Now the talk was about VPNs, Active Sync and CRM. I sat by his bedside and accessed from my laptop the hospital’s wireless network to connect to our company’s Virtual Private Network (VPN) where I had access to all of our files, our Customer Relationship Management system and our accounting system. I had full view of sales orders as they came in and I was communicating by email with my staff and our field sales team.

This is a good thing?
Yes, I was able to spend more time with dad while he was ill and I didn’t have to be at the office. But was it “quality time”? Has it gotten to the point where we can’t enjoy a little important time away from work? What’s happening to our quality time, and just what are our technology-based “efficiencies” doing to us?

Info overload
Here I sit at my desk typing to you on a brand spanking new laptop. It has a “duo processor,” whatever that is. Supposedly it helps me have more windows open to do more multitasking. Great.

It has a 160-gigabyte hard-drive. I don’t know exactly how large 160 gigabytes is, but I suspect “War and Peace” and the entire history of the civilized world could be stored on it. NO WAY do I want 160 gigabytes of data on anything I have access to. Someone might expect me to remember where I stored it.

This new laptop baby is prepped to synchronize data with my office and our field team. It also desires to sync with my iPod. I use my iPod with music, movies and the holy scriptures mostly on airplanes while working on my laptop. What ever happened to reading a novel during that down time? Taking a nap?

I can see the day a silicone business card in my shirt pocket will contain all my medical records, driving record, every song I have ever heard and every file and folder from work.

My phone/PDA still amazes me. How a Blackberry or a Windows mobile phone can synchronize over the cell waves with my company computer server to bring me emails, calendars and contact changes all without plugging it in or me even knowing it is happening. And it can do all this in just about any country in the world.

Would a stack of business cards with a rubber band around them and a pay phone lower my blood pressure? Do I need a tool that keeps me looking at my email at 11 p.m. before I go to bed and at 5:30 before I roust my son up for school? Can’t it (I) wait until I get to the office?

Knowledge junkies
We continue to “drink the kool aid” of Microsoft, RIM (Blackberry) and Steve Jobs spouting “freedom,” “wireless” and “connected.” The hucksters tell us to be cool, to be up to the minute on what was sold today, on who emailed me, and we need to do this from anywhere in the world.

OK, I’ve bought into it all. And I’ll likely continue to. But more important than our “need to know’ is our customers or stakeholders in our lives and their expectations that we “must” be available to them 24/7. Do we live the life of “I can’t miss the call or email or they’ll call my competitor?” Are we training our employer, our employee and our customers to expect too much from us? Are our tools, computers, email, voicemail, cell phones and PDAs just expensive handcuffs or real tools to get things done?

I propose they are in fact both. They are great tools should we choose to manage them vs. them managing us.

Sense of balance
What I’m talking about is balance.

Having the sense of balance to let your team, your customer and vendors know they are critically important to you, but you do in fact have a family or personal life and that you cannot get their call on the first ring every time.

Balance to accept the same facts from others as well.

Balance to sometimes turn Outlook off for an hour while you finish the critical project that has been on your desk for a week unfinished because of less important email interruptions.

Balance to not feel obligated to return emails on your Blackberry from the beach in Hawaii or the slopes of Colorado, or worse, from your son’s t-ball game.

Balance to leave the laptop on your desk some nights versus on your lap until late at night. Balance to just read a novel on an airplane ride or not feel guilty because you don’t use the Starbucks “hotspot” to check in just because there is one.

Is this balancing act solely incumbent on us individually?
Certainly it starts with us, but I propose it is not just an individual effort. It’s also about organizations that “get” balance and encourage their employees to work smarter with tech tools — not just longer hours.

I am a junkie, I admit it. I write from many of my experiences and I am working on improving my balance. And now as I write it is 11:30 p.m., so I should shut it down. Turn in without checking email one last time. If you’ve thought about this topic, agree, disagree, or use some methods of your own device to better manage technology and quality time, please share them with me.

I promise to only read them during business hours!