It doesn’t really matter which Instant Messaging (IM) product is used: ICQ, AOL, MSN, Yahoo, or combination hybrids such as Trillian and Jabber. They each have their own specific features and terminology, but the net effect on your environment is inevitably the same—it’s either a nuisance or a boost to productivity. The question is: Which is it?

IDC estimates that the IM market will reach 180 million users worldwide by 2004. Gartner Group forecasts that 70 percent of all enterprises will use IM by the end of 2003, with businesses moving toward adopting IM as a tool to communicate with customers through 2005.

Identifying use
The first step in determining the net effect of IM use is to identify how IM is being used in your shop. Depending on usage, IM software can be considered either a nuisance or an effective productivity tool. You should determine the number of employees who are now using IM and whether they are using it for business or personal communications (or a combination of both).

IM nuisance vs. productivity checklist
Use the basic checklist in Table A to see how IM measures up in your environment. You should have more productivity checks than nuisance to show a trend toward IM use as being positive.
Table A

Nuisance Criteria YES
More personal than business contacts  
Used in addition to voice and e-mail for the same information  
Spend more time responding to IM than e-mail or voice mail  
Used for file transfers  
Productivity Criteria YES
Only business contacts on contact list  
Used as a supplement to e-mail/voice for live, time-sensitive collaboration and communication  
Developers are spread out (either geographically or just not in an open concept office)  

Your IM usage checklist may reveal a problem.

IM: Nuisance and corporate security risk?
IM spam is not quite as prevalent as the e-mail variety. However unlike e-mail, the conversation could be ongoing. Unless you designate otherwise, you are online and open for conversation. From a business productivity point of view, it can be a major nuisance, especially if your IM address list is made up of nonbusiness contacts. I’ve heard a few of my colleagues refer to it as the equivalent of trying to work while you are at home eating dinner with your family.

Even if they are legitimate business contacts, IM messages are tougher to dodge than voice mail or e-mail. IM adds another layer of communication chaos to the already convoluted mix of voice, e-mail, fax, snail mail, and face-to-face meetings you must deal with daily.

On another point, your network environment certainly has various virus-protection mechanisms in place. Do they scan your IM traffic? Could malicious users gain control of an IM client and initiate a network attack? Yet another question to ask is, Why are users launching IM and not using e-mail to transfer files? Is it an attempt to circumvent tracking in a centralized information store?

Productivity tool extraordinaire?
IM can be an incredible productivity tool. In various tech/studio setups that I’ve managed over the years, it has never ceased to amaze me how differently developers use e-mail and IM. E-mail is most often used for heavy-lifting tasks such as specifications, documentation, status reports, and so forth. IM is for conversation—rapid conversation in most cases. While we still use e-mail, IM is most often used when immediate feedback is needed. From a management point of view, especially when dealing with multiple developers in multiple locations, IM allows me to know when the staff is available, away, busy, out to lunch, etc. Communication is an essential component of productivity, if you can improve the level and speed of communication. But productivity will suffer if users are abusers. How can you tell which is the case in your department?

If you allow IM to go unchecked and have no idea how it is being used in your environment, my cynical belief is that you have a slim chance that it is being used productively. Personally, I don’t like those odds. Writing and enforcing an IM usage policy is the preferred strategy to ensure that IM is used responsibly in your shop. The policy could be an adjunct to an established communications policy that includes phone and e-mail use, or a stand-alone policy. The same issues that constitute IM abuse are similar to those for phone/e-mail abuse (i.e., more personal phone calls/e-mails than for business reasons).

Over the last several years, I have managed environments where I banned, blocked, or encouraged IM use. The bottom line is that it really depends on the environment. IM is what you make of it and how you allow it to exist in your environment

What do you think?

Post your comments below on how you use or avoid IM.