The last two companies I worked at used instant messaging (IM) extensively in their corporate environment. They sent meeting notifications over IM, they used IM to indicate their availability for interactions, and they used it for the quick questions that IM is so good at handling (“hey John, can you bounce the server?”). IM has no spam, and is good at generating immediate responses.

I’m a latecomer to IM. I’ve used talk in college, but in a work environment, email was usually enough. And, I have to confess, when I’m programming, it’s not easy for me to task switch. And IM demands that, in the same way that a phone call does. How many times have you been deep in a conversation with someone, only to have their phone ring? You know what happens next: they say “can I get that?” and reach for the phone. Whatever flow and connection you had is disrupted.

Now, obviously you can configure IM to be less intrusive than a phone call, and the first thing I did was switch off all sound notifications in my yahoo IM client. However, the entire point of IM is to disrupt what you’re doing–whether it’s by playing a sound or blinking or popping up a window, the attraction of IM is that it is immediate.

I’ve found that ninety percent of people would rather talk to a person than look something up for themselves. (I am one of those ninety percent.) There are a number of reasons. It’s easier to ask unstructured questions. People are more responsive, and can come up with answers that you wouldn’t think to find on your own. And it’s just plain reassuring to find out what someone else thinks–you can have a mini discussion about the issue. This last is especially important if you aren’t even sure what you’re trying to find.

IM is a great help for this kind of ad-hoc discussion. However, it’s another distraction at work. The real question is, do we need more distractions at work? Jakob Nielsen doesn’t think so (see number 6) and I agree.

However, IM is becoming ingrained in these corporations, and I don’t see anything standing in the way of further adoption. The original impetus to write this essay was the astonishment I felt at these two facts:

1. the widespread corporate use of IM

2. the paucity of corporate level control over IM

In all the time I was working at these companies, I saw many many IMs sent. But I only heard one mention of setting up a corporate IM server (someone mentioned that one of the infrastructure projects, long postponed, was to set up a jabber server). Now, I don’t pretend that any corporate secrets were being exchanged, at least no more than are sent every day via unencrypted email. But every corporation of a decent size has control over its email infrastructure. I was astonished that no similar move had taken place yet for IM. Perhaps because IM is a young technology, perhaps because it is being rolled out from the bottom up, perhaps because it’s not (always) a permanent medium.

For whatever reason, I think that you’re going to see more and more IM servers (even MS has an offering) being deployed as businesses (well, IT departments) realize that IM is being heavily used and is not being monitored at all. Perhaps this is analogous to the explosion of departments static HTML intranets that happened in the late 1990s, which only came to an end when the IT department realized what was happening, and moved to standardize what became an important business information resource.


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