IM is Here. RU Prepared?

IM is Here. RU Prepared?

Having IM software on the desktop - regularly chiming with incoming queries - has the potential to erode one's efficiency. But most instant messaging software allows you to set your status, which is akin to hanging a "Welcome" or "Do Not Disturb" sign outside your office door

Instant messaging software isn't just for teenagers. Businesses that adopt it foster speedy communication and collaboration.

The next application with the potential to scramble your company's power structure is here, and your colleagues are already using it.

First was the spreadsheet, which gave a budgetary edge to astute managers who quickly learned how to game the numbers. Then came PowerPoint, which helped executives reinvigorate stale, old ideas through the magic of computer graphics.

Now, the software that's shaking things up is the instant messaging (IM) client. First popularised by AOL, IM is a communications technology that basically does two things: it tells you who else is connected to the network at a given moment, and it lets you exchange data - shorthand messages, documents, Web addresses - with them instantly.

Since this is the point in most articles where the writer whips out a statistic from an analyst firm to convince you that you ought to continue reading because this is serious stuff, I should let you know that Gartner predicts that by 2005, IM will be used more often than e-mail.

That stat suggests that instant messaging is rapidly evolving from a toy used by teenagers for gossip and trash talking into a business tool used by adults for gossip and trash talking. Seriously, anecdotal evidence indicates that some executives are finding IM to be a valuable new communications channel that helps them get answers more quickly and collaborate more smoothly. The Gartner projection was enough to make me curious about the ways that instant messaging is being used today, its benefits and disadvantages, and the usage dynamics that might develop once it is adopted more widely.

How Is IM Used Today?

Like e-mail, it's a way to link geographically dispersed individuals. Like the telephone (and unlike e-mail), it's a synchronous mode of communication, which means that you get instant responses to questions you ask. Instant messaging lets colleagues anywhere have a whispering-across-the-cubicle-wall exchange, which supports collaboration (and also casual exchanges about last night's footy).

Jim McCain, president of McCain and Associates, a Virginia-based sales consulting company, says that using instant messaging software has helped reduce his phone bills. The company has 11 full-time employees scattered from Florida to India.

"It's just like having my office next to any of [my employees'], and being able to stick my head in and ask a question," McCain says. "And it makes the people who work with me feel like they have an open door to me at all times." McCain also says that given the time differences between the company's far-flung offices, the IM software is helpful because it lets him know that even though it's evening in India, one of his employees there is still at work and is available to help solve a problem.

IBM was one of the earliest corporate users of instant messaging. John Patrick, IBM's vice president of Internet technology, says that he began experimenting with IM in 1997. Today, about 100,000 IBMers are active IMers, sending between 1 million and 2 million messages a day.

Patrick says that many people use instant messaging as a kind of silent partner during conference calls. Here's one scenario: two groups of attorneys are negotiating with each other over a contract. One side, which might be geographically dispersed or sitting in their home office, can converse among themselves with IM to adjust their strategy on the fly - without the other side hearing a word over the speakerphone.

Executives might also want a silent PR partner to assist them during a phone call with a reporter, says Ted Graham, worldwide director of knowledge management services at the New York City-based public relations firm Hill & Knowlton. "If you got a call from a reporter, you could find somebody from your [public relations] account team online and be able to ask them questions during the interview," Graham says, outlining a pilot program under way at his company.

Graham also says that his assistant uses IM to communicate with him when he's out of the office. "It supersedes the hundred messages in my [e-mail] inbox, because it pops right up on my screen," he says.

What Are the Benefits of IM?

Users of instant messaging software can create their own circumscribed universe of friends and colleagues; Patrick calls it "your current circle of knowledge partners". With most software, you can decide who to include and who to exclude. That means that instant messaging is a fairly pure channel of communication. It could be a way for only your assistant, your spouse and your boss to get in touch. Or it could include a whole project team, or everyone in your department. But unlike e-mail, if you carefully control who has access to your IM "screen name" (the equivalent of an e-mail address), you won't constantly be cc'ed on messages you don't care about.

Most people treat their IM screen name the same way they treat their mobile phone number; they only divulge it to people who deserve a certain level of priority. (Some IM applications can already beam messages not just to PCs but to mobile phones too.) Instant messaging also helps you get questions answered more quickly. Unlike sending an e-mail, IM correspondence takes place in real time. You don't have to wait interminably for someone to respond (or not); you get an answer immediately - or at least a pointer to someone who is likely to know the answer.

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