Get Rid of Instant Messaging at the Workplace

With Skype being widely used by businesses for overseas calls, the other equally used function of Skype Chat (Instant Messaging) is getting its fair share of use. Not to mention the usual favorites in the IM world: MSN messenger and Yahoo messenger (which many companies do ban the use of). However such IM (Instant Messaging) activities are a nightmare in the project management of any programs that require formal documentation such as design refinements, project constraints and approvals. This is especially problematic when projects involve many participants from different locations, may it be locally or globally.

Its neither a phone call nor email, its somewhere in between
The problem I have with IM is it falls between a verbal conversation and an email discussion, but takes up all the bad points of both modes of communications. IM gives you the advantages of voice, which is the back and forth banter and discussion between 2 people. It helps facilitates things, but the problem is it not a good form of documentation as even though you are typing text into it it’s very informal.
Next, similar as in an email discussion, you also lose the “face to face” advantages such as facial expressions, tone of voice and body language, thus you often tend to miss out the nuances of an IM discussion. IM programs have mitigated this with little “facial” icons, but with most business users, I often find they do not use such icons (lack of awareness?), or little things like “hmm”, “sigh”, “arrgh” that gives a little more into the psyche of the person you are having a discussion with.
The temptation to use IM is just too high
Kudos to the designers, but IM programs is just too easy to use and get access too. It’s a lot simpler to IM someone a question, than to call that person overseas. It’s a lot simpler to IM someone a question than it is to send an email. The instant response from that person, getting answers to your pounding questions and releasing the mental discomfit are the main motivations. It is also too easy to start an IM conversation, decide on some issues, then walk away and happily work on but forgetting to document it.
This will become a huge a social problem in the work place in time to come for the Generation “Zs”. They are the people who are currently in their twenties and below, and grew up with computers. Thus their social circles revolve around frequent chats with friends with IM programs.
IM is PEER to PEER
That means the IM program is all about a person to person. Unless it’s a conference chat, there is no way for other people in your team will know what was discussed unless it is carefully documented. This leads me to me next point.
IM does not Document Well
Trawling chat logs for information is a hopeless waste of time. You loses context of the discussion. Replies are often short, and very specific. Descriptions are minimal, and you get a whole lot of miscellaneous remarks that have no bearing to the conversation at hand.
If your discussion is moving into “I though the draft angle was 5 degrees…” you better be using email. Finally with email you can CC your team, chat is just that, chat.
Informal or Formal, Official or Off the Record?
Because IM hovers between 2 zones, the informality of a phone conversation (they say talk is cheap) and the formality of an email (they say put it in writing), it’s hard to know at any one time, at what level are you having your conversation at?
Are you throwing out some ideas just to bounce it around? Or are you putting your foot down about your position in this contract negotiation? It could get even more difficult if the other party decides to take your “idea bouncing” seriously. Also think about its use in business talk where a lot of it is fact finding, and very little of it is commitment.
What to use IM for?
At the end of the day IM does have its place in communications. But I see it as an informal way to talk, and should remain as a tool between friends. It can be easily used incorrectly in the business place where formality is required. When its about work and especially design, you need to have clear cut and well carved boundaries, IM straddles both sides and should be use with caution.
If you do use it at the work place keep it only as a means to send a message to ask someone if you can call that person or something like that. You should never use it for discussion with business vendors or partners. It’s debatable if IM should be used with colleagues, but my preference is still email, phone, or face to face.

4 Comments
  • drew kora

    April 5, 2007 at 4:37 am Reply

    Hmm, this is really thought provoking. I thought you were going to talk about lost productivity from non-work-related chats.
    My problem is that if I leave my MSN Messenger / Skype / iChat on all the time and people IM me…friends, college buddies, my wife, even parents…30 minutes will fly by in a heartbeat. If co-workers do IM me it’s usually the co-workers in my shared office space who are a shoulder glance away and within talking distance and we’re making fun of some silly vendor who dropped in for a cold call to drop off samples.

  • Design Translator

    April 5, 2007 at 6:10 am Reply

    Actually it can be a distraction if its personal you are right, but I suppose I expect people to know what to do with personal matters and not use such programs at work.
    But I think what I wanted to focus with this was what if companies wanted to use IM for work? I know GE for a fact has their own similar office wide IM software, though a lot more advance. So what I wanted with this is to indicated that it should not be so.
    Thanks for stopping by with your comments. Please keep intouch.

  • oxoboxo

    April 12, 2007 at 11:39 am Reply

    Try Microsoft Office Groove! It’s included in the lastest version of Office and it’s basically a workspace where groups can work together on their own terms. Chats and instant messages are logged, and when other members sign on, they receive the log of the conversations that took place.

  • Design Translator

    April 12, 2007 at 11:53 am Reply

    Hey oxoboxo, thanks for the heads up, i’ll go check it out as it seems to be the a good tool for business.

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