Enterprise IM: Reality or Myth?

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (01-Jan-2008)

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When many of us hear the words "online chatting", or "instant messaging" (IM), we're immediately filled with images of giggling teenagers in front of computers partaking in vacuous dialog—with the aid of abundant smileys and acronyms such as ROTFL, CUL8R, and IMHO—about how so-and-so did something totally uncool to whatsername.

IM gained its popularity on the Internet as another one of those social widgets that allow users to instantly connect with anyone regardless of location. The greatest selling point of IM is its ability to bridge that geographic gap in real-time. But are there any true business applications to using IM internally in an organization? Or is IM just another one of those IT acronyms that companies feel the need to throw into their arsenal of collaboration tools simply to say that they have it?

IM: A matter of perception

Online chatting, a real-time (commonly referred to as "synchronous") text-based communications medium, is already widely used by companies on the Internet for technical and customer service support situations. It's used by companies to augment their other contact methods—1-800 numbers, e-mail, snail-mail—for communication with the outside world.

But the application of IM internally, within the walls of the same organization, is still hotly debated. The most obvious question: Why? Why not use the phone? Why not use e-mail? Why not wrap a letter around a baseball and toss it over the cubicles? Why do we need yet another enterprise communication tool?

My first experiences with online chatting, like most people's, was exclusively social rather than business. It was a "cutesy" tool more than anything. And like most things that originated as a toy, the evolution from frivolous to productive is often fraught with roadblocks—most of which stem from our perceptions of the tool in its infant state no matter how mature the tool has gotten.

The manner in which we use any communication tool boils down to our perception of the media. As humans, we're all creatures of habit and tend to communicate differently depending on the particular medium being used. E-mail, for instance, doesn't occur in real-time, and as such, most users will have a tendency to be a bit more verbose. They often take their time in crafting their message much like writing a hard copy letter. They edited and re-edit, occasionally even trying to wax poetic, until their e-mail is completely polished. This can be a good thing when writing a formal letter to a client, but can be infuriating in an informal setting where someone is waiting for a quick e-mail response. E-mail lacks the expectancy of real-time communication—that knowledge that there's someone on the other end of a conversation waiting on you to speak or type.

Verbal communication such as a telephone conversation seems effortless and less involved. It lacks the effort required to transfer thought onto keyboard—especially since we think much faster than we can type. Speaking tends to feel more natural and in tune with the way we're accustomed to communicating with others. It goes back to the first time we uttered "Mama" or "Dada". And because of this, there's a greater probability of small talk and digressions when speaking with someone either face-to-face or over the phone.

Arguably, IM blends the best of both worlds. It combines real-time verbal communication and the act of writing an e-mail without the time gap between when a message is sent and when it's responded to.

IM as an enterpirse communication and support tool

Despite any preconceived notions about the frivolous nature of IM, there are many business applications and advantages to using IM:

Closing thoughts

Although, admittedly, I'm not totally convinced as to the financial value and feasibility of implementing a stand-alone IM solution. Most portal software or all-in-one collaboration suites—tools that can be used for online meetings, presentations, and e-learning applications—include an IM component. In these cases, why not make use of a tool if it's already there?

I never bought into the fear that IM will lead to widespread misuse of the tool—that employees will turn the medium into a huge digital grapevine where logic takes a backseat to gossip. If employees were going to do that, they would have already done it with the myriad of other communications media that preceded IM.

IM is meant to augment other collaboration tools, and all of these tools—especially the real-time ones—have a social element that can lead to misuse. But users have been using e-mail for personal messages and to forward jokes since it was first adopted in a corporate environment and the sky hasn't fallen.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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