Stop the IM madness!

Instant Messaging software may be the newest communications craze, but Bob Artner believes you should look twice before you leap into IM. This edition of Artner's Law looks at the reasons why what you say should be more important than how you say it.

One of the great things about writing an online column is that you get immediate feedback. Back when I worked in the print world, I never knew how people felt about a piece I wrote. That’s certainly not true here at TechRepublic—you let me know exactly what you like and what you don’t.

One of the strongest reactions I’ve ever gotten to a column was my rant about the use of the blind carbon copy as a way to surreptitiously send e-mail messages to a third party. I argued against the practice, and hundreds of you sent me e-mail or posted comments to the article, taking the other side.

Well, brace yourselves, because I’m about to poke another hornet’s nest. In this column, I’m going to argue that you should reconsider your plans to deploy Instant Messaging (IM) in your organization.

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A few good words about IM
A recent Gartner report (TechRepublic is a subsidiary of Gartner) estimates that 15 billion text messages are being transmitted around the world each month. Increasingly, IM is the medium of choice for these communications and can be accessed by PC, PDA, cell phones, and special pagers.

Therefore, I know that my struggle against IM is a lonely, quixotic crusade, destined to end in failure. Perhaps three years from now, my refusal to use IM will be viewed as a quaint eccentricity: “That’s Bob—he’s the guy who’s not on the department IM Buddy List,” in the same way you might refer to a guy who’s never seen an episode of The Sopranos.

In any event, it’s not as if I can’t see some value in IM. For example, I’d love to be able to send my boss an occasional message: GET OFF THE PHONE. NEED TO TALK TO YOU. Conversely, when I’m being held up on a call, it’d be convenient to be able to IM someone: CONF CALL RUNNING LONG. START MEETING W/O ME.

Why I fear IM
So why don’t I want IM in my organization? After all, I’ve been told, communication continues to be a huge issue in most IT departments. Why would I oppose a technology that improves team communication?

To me, such an argument confuses the method of transmission with the content of the message. What should matter is not how easy it is to transmit a message but what, in fact, we have to say to each other.

This reminds me of a newspaper column I read about 10 years ago. The columnist got the chance to demo one of the first truly portable cellular phones, an early unit that had its own briefcase. Enthusiastic about the technology, he started calling his friends and having conversations that went something like this:

“Joe? This is Bill. Guess where I’m calling from?”

“I don’t know, Bill. Where?”

“I’m calling from a portable telephone. I’m walking from my parking garage to my office, and I’m talking to you on the phone.”

“That’s great, Bill. Was there something in particular that you wanted to talk about?”

“No, not really. Good bye.”

“Good bye, Bill.”

This kind of exchange crystallizes my fears about IM: getting so wrapped up in the appeal and user-friendliness of the technology that we don’t look at what we’re actually saying.

My other reason for not liking IM
I admit this reason isn’t very profound, but here it is: I don’t want to use any technology that employs something called a Buddy List. Maybe I’m just getting old, but it sounds so juvenile. What’s next? Are we going to change Outlook’s Address Book into “My Pals"?

I agree with those that say that effective communication is the single biggest issue facing most IT organizations. The key word there is effective. I’ve written before about e-mail, and I have been critical of IT managers whodon’t spend enough time composing messages. This causes all kinds of problems for these men and women when sending e-mail to their direct reports. What are the chances that IM is going to lead to more thoughtful and reflective communications?

A Brave New World for meetings?
I know I’m probably in the minority here. After all, Gartner has discussed the possibility of technical managers sending IM messages to wireless PDAs while they are sitting around the table during a boring meeting.

"With 15 billion messages flying through our hands each month, that PowerPoint slide in the live meeting better be relevant and compelling," said Gartner research director Ken Dulaney. "Otherwise, workers will dive into more productive interactions via wireless IM."

To borrow a phrase, I guess it all depends on what the meaning of the term “productive interaction” is. Imagine this scene: a room full of IT pros sitting around a conference table listening to some guy drone on through an endless PowerPoint presentation. Some folks are using their PDAs to carry on a surreptitious IM conversation. I’ll describe two possible transcripts of that conversation. You tell me: which one is more likely?

Scenario One
YNKS4VR945: While Jerry’s going over his presentation, let’s multitask and discuss last week’s project reports.

49ER1256: Good idea. I’m worried about the delay in the Chicago installation projection. Bill, can your guys help out?

TCU93NUM1: I don’t see how. We’ve got our own problems with the CRM update, not to mention New York.

YNKS4VR945: We all know how hard your guys are working, Bill. We’re just hoping you’ll be able to peel off some resources when you finish in New York.

Scenario Two
YNKS4VR945: make this blowhard shut up!!!!!!

49ER1256: Where u want to eat? Bill u hungry?

TCU93NUM1: sure, but no mexican this time, ok?

YNKS4VR945: Wimp!

I’m exaggerating, of course, but you get my point. What technical managers need is not something that will allow us to communicate more quickly but rather something that will help us communicate more effectively.

Ideally, we need an anti-IM technology. It could work like this: When you hit the Send button, it reads the message and says something like, “Man, are you sure you want to send this? It makes you sound pretty stupid.” (I know that there are e-mail add-ons that check your outgoing messages, but they are just responding to lists of profanity and other objectionable words, not truly scanning for content.)

If you must IM
As I said at the outset, I know that IM is a tidal wave that can’t be stopped. Odds are that half of you have an IM window open on your desktop as you read this. Let me close by saying that if you must use IM, please try to remember these points:
  1. Just because you can’t archive IM messages like e-mail doesn’t mean you can’t really get yourself in trouble. Think about what you’re saying.
  2. Just because you communicate instantly doesn’t mean you need to; if you’re not careful, IM can be just as much of a time sink as Quake or Napster.
  3. Just because IM makes communication instantaneous doesn’t mean you don’t have to haul yourself out of your office or cubicle and talk to your coworkers. Nothing, repeat nothing, can take the place of a face-to-face communication between two human beings. Try it sometime.

Has Instant Messaging helped or hurt your organization?
To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Tell us about a situation in which using IM either helped or hurt your business. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner's Law column will win a free TechRepublic coffee mug.


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