Tablets are frequently cited as a boon to productivity. We assume workers will become more mobile, accessing email and calendars on the go, quickly responding to documents while on the move, and happily collaborating over a slate in an ad-hoc meeting. I’m not aware of any formal studies, but from what I saw the last time I walked up the airplane aisle during a flight, tablets might not be offering the purported productivity benefits.

Crushing candy

The most noteworthy use of tablets I observed on this flight was the Candy Crush game. Like Angry Birds, I personally don’t get the attraction, but apparently, I’m in the minority. Other users appeared to be watching movies. In fact, the only borderline productive use of tablets I observed were a few people reading a book or newspaper.

While I’ve often enjoyed forgoing work on an airplane to catch up on some reading or watch a film — and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that anyone who isn’t working during every instant of downtime is an idler — it was interesting that precisely zero tablets of the dozens on the flight were engaged in productivity applications. This contrasts with laptops, the majority of which appeared to be running the stalwarts of corporate life: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Tablets gone wild

Occasionally, I’ll also observe someone going through elaborate gyrations to use their tablet to create a document or send an email. Special keyboard cases are deployed, and judging by the confused looks and checks of various batteries and indicator lights, they aren’t 100% reliable. I’ve also tried to use tablets as a collaborative tool in meetings and — like all technology — experienced occasional frustration when what seemed like a good idea turned into several minutes of checking network settings, restarting applications, and growing more embarrassed and infuriated as a simple task turned overly complex.

Picking the right tool

As technology becomes increasingly available, we’re often tempted to deploy the nearest technology tool at hand to accomplish a task. My wife often laughs as I attempt increasingly elaborate search engine queries and smartphone gyrations, forgetting that a simple telephone call could quickly solve my problem.

A similar risk exists for tablets. They’re relatively new and highly capable in several areas, and we’re occasionally tempted to view them as a solution for any task, even when it involves using a cramped keyboard and sub-optimal applications to revise a document, a task that might take only moments on a laptop.

For enterprise IT organizations, we often spend a great deal of energy and care in assessing and selecting a technology, and then we leave it up to the user community to figure it out. As use patterns for these devices are still developing, it’s imperative that we put as much care into studying how our user community is leveraging these tools and provide adequate instruction and guidance on how to best use them. To modernize the old saying: Give a man a tablet, and he’ll play Candy Crush. Collaboratively teach a man how to be productive with a tablet, and he might actually do some work.