How Instant Messaging Can Improve Productivity
Instant messaging comes to the office
by Robert McGarvey December 2008
Instant messaging is no longer only for kids—it’s a business productivity tool.
Just when you thought the Internet revolution had screeched to a halt in the workplace, it’s time to wake up to this transformational reality: “IMing is becoming an office staple,” declares Akiba Saeedi, the director of unified communications and collaboration at IBM. (Instant messaging is known as IM to the cognoscenti.) She has hard numbers showing that IM saves her company money, but the more startling reality is that suddenly IM has morphed from a teenager’s toy into a business essential. Forward-thinking companies understand that, when properly deployed, IM is a time-saving tool that brings enormous benefits to the organization.
So what is instant messaging, exactly? The short, burst-like electronic messages are sent via a growing number of clients, including Google Talk and AOL Instant Messenger, as well as proprietary tools such as Lotus Sametime, the software in heavy use at IBM. “Inside IBM, we send six million IMs every day,” says Saeedi. “Two years [ago], it was only four million.”
Many experts say that IM’s growth trajectory is heading straight up. Malcolm Lotzof, CEO of Chicago-based InXpo, which puts on virtual conferences, notes that “when twentysomethings come into the workforce, they expect to be using IMs. I often see them carrying on [multiple] IM conversations simultaneously.”
Shifting workplace demographics help explain this adoption frenzy, but many other factors are also at play. IM isn’t just email in different garb; it’s actually a far more powerful communication tool. “IM is two-way conversation. Email is one-way,” says Mike Song, CEO of CKS, an email effectiveness training company based in Connecticut. That’s no small payoff: IM is becoming a must-have collaborative tool, adds Derek LaFever, head of IT at Fox Architects in Washington, D.C. “We have teams working together on projects, and how they communicate now is typically by IM,” says LaFever, though he includes the disclaimer that his company, like many others, does not encourage using IM to communicate externally. “It’s not professional. We want the paper trail you get with email.” But internally at Fox Architects, while a team hashes out what a new building should look like, the communication tool of choice has become IM. Describes LaFever, “I’ll often have six or more IM conversations going at any one time myself.”
No more pesky voicemail
One reason for the soaring popularity of IM is that it’s replacing telephony in many companies. “About 70 percent of business calls wind up in voicemail,” says Song, and that poor success rate is prompting businesses to investigate alternatives. “I no longer even check my voicemail,” shrugs IBM’s Saeedi, who also indicates that in her work circles, people use IM to set up phone meetings (“Can I call you at 3:30 p.m.?”). This tactic takes the frustration and wasted effort out of placing calls that go nowhere.
Sweetening the deal is that IM is ordinarily faster and more efficient than phone calls, which inevitably include social interaction (“So what do you think about the Patriots’ chances this year?”). In contrast, IM gets straight to the point, with no frills required.
Obviously available or busy
Another key reason for IM’s high efficiency: It builds presence, says Paul Robichaux, a partner at Redmond, Wash.–based 3Sharp, a developer of business-grade IM tools. Presence may seem like a simple concept, but it plays an essential role. “Presence is hugely important. It tells me if the person I need is in fact available,” says Robichaux. Built into every common IM tool are flags that users can set to indicate their status as available, busy, at lunch or in a meeting. Acclimating to presence notification requires a cultural shift, Robichaux admits—some users always set their flag to “busy,” while others ignore flagging entirely—but once a user recognizes the power of this tool, it means no more wasted time chasing help from people who aren’t available.
Presence gains more power with distributed teams—groups with members in numerous locations and time zones. “IM lets us work as though we are in the same building,” says Cary Landis, CEO of software developer Virtual Global, headquartered in Morgantown, W.V., who farms out much of the programming to a workgroup in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Russian team has been working for Landi for seven years, “but I have never met any of them face-to-face,” he says. Why not use the phone? “Their spoken English isn’t very good,” says Landis, whose Russian may be worse. The team tried using popular online calling tool Skype (skype.com), but it proved frustrating for both sides. However, his foreign colleagues’ written English is more accomplished. There’s even a solution for team members who neither speak nor write English comfortably: Landis has concocted a seamless hookup between his IM client and Google’s free translator (translate.google.com/translate_t), so a Russian can type in his mother tongue, but Landis will receive an English-language IM.
Breaking distance and language barriers
That’s pretty cool, but it gets even better. At Disaboom.com, a social-networking site for the disabled, community evangelist Jelena Woehr reports that the old days of queuing up outside a boss’s door are long past—as are the days of leaving her a voicemail and hoping for a call back. “My boss prefers to be contacted by IM. That is how we set up meetings when we need them, but many questions are answered with IMs alone,” she says.
Despite its many advantages, IM is not the answer for all communication dilemmas, says Andres Heuberger, president of ForeignExchange Translations in Waltham, Mass. Designed for staccato bursts of text, the medium does not have the flexibility to resolve every question. This brings us to the next generation of IMing. “After a minute or two of IMing,” Heuberger reports, “I’ll write: ‘Shouldn’t we be picking up the phone?’”
In the next generation of IM tools—unfolding even as you read this—“there’s a lot more convergence,” says IBM’s Saeedi. She explains that advanced IM tools, such as her company’s Lotus Sametime, enable users to instantly toggle among text chat, voice calls and even video chat (voice calls via computer with live video in the bargain). “IM is no longer just about typing,” Saeedi says. “I can see your availability, and I can decide which medium will work best for this interaction: IM, voice or video. We now have that power.”
Speaking of power, let’s get back to the notion of saving money. According to Saeedi, IBM saves $18 million annually by relying more heavily on IM than phone calls, plus another $98 million per year in trimmed travel costs (the need for face-to-face meetings dips). Those numbers may not be showstoppers at a billion-dollar enterprise like IBM, but it makes a big enough difference for management to pay attention. “We are using IM more and more because it raises our productivity,” says Saeedi. “That is why this is gaining in popularity. It lets us all work that much better.”
Robert McGarvey is a freelance writer in New Jersey.