Instant messaging: Another distraction or a tool for collaboration?

Apparently, e-mail isn't fast enough.

After years of reluctance to add another potential distraction to their employees' work days, companies are starting to embrace instant messaging.

Instant messaging isn't new to the workplace, but it's mainly been used by employees who have installed IM programs on the sly. Now employers are getting into the act. IM programs allow users to start casual, real-time conversations with co-workers on their "buddy lists," which show who is online. With IMs, not only can you get instant answers, but you can talk with multiple people at once. Some programs offer video features and file sharing.

Together with blogs and wikis, IMs are "changing the way people collaborate," says Andrew McAfee, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. Companies "increasingly react to situations and problems on the fly, not solely by hierarchy," he told The Wall Street Journal.

In fact, 95 percent of employees in big companies will be using IMs as the "de facto tool for voice, video and text chat" within five years, predicts Gartner Inc., a technology consultant, the Journal reported.

Bill Parish, an accountant with a home business in Kansas City, Mo., uses MSN Messenger to communicate with clients. When he travels, he changes his IM icon - a palm tree means he's in Florida, a race car represents Indianapolis.

"I like that it's instantaneous, that my clients can say 'Do you have a minute to invest in me.' It's almost like having (them) move in to the space next door - you see them in the hallways and stop to talk to them. This becomes that hallway," said Parish, a former technology committee and practice development committee chairman for the National Society of Accountants. "I've tried to take anything I can do in person and do it through cyberspace," he told Accounting Technology.

Consider the case of Vivek Khanna of Los Gatos, CA, the U.S. director of business development for a back-office outsourcing company based in Mumbai, India. When he's finishing dinner, it's 9 a.m. in Mumbia. He heads to his computer until about 11 p.m. to answer e-mail and IM questions about accounting vouchers and payroll forms, the Chicago Tribune reported. He sleeps a bit, but by 5 a.m. he's back at his computer to catch the end of the business day in India.

The casual nature of IMs can help blur the lines of hierarchy in business. Suzanne Gordon, chief information officer for software maker SAS Institute Inc., IMs with overseas staffers two or three steps below her on the organizational chart, the Journal reported. During one chat, a manager in France pointed out a flaw in technology support. A quick IM survey of other employees convinced Gordon that she should assign the problem to a manager in the U.S. "Sometimes through proper channels you don't always get the truth."

The drawbacks of instant messaging? IT professionals worry about security breaches; managers worry about losing control; workers wonder if they're ever really "off" work. IM programs have a Big Brother-like quality of showing others when you're at your computer. Paul Tidball, an SAS product manager who works from his home in Oregon, said he sometimes signs off IM programs when he feels overwhelmed. "At some point you just have to put the mouse down," he told the Journal.

Some observers say that businesses are foot-draggers when it comes to new technologies. Executives should understand what teenagers are using, since they're typically the first to embrace new ideas and gadgets.

E-mail? Too inefficient. "If I'm talking to any friends it's through a social network," said Asheem Badshah, a teenaged president of Scriptovia.com, an essay-sharing site. "For me, even IM died and was replaced by text messaging. Facebook will replace e-mail for communicating with certain people," Badshah said. CNet reported these and similar comments from teen entrepreneurs at a Mashups 2007 conference in San Francisco last week.

Dow Chemical Co. is taking cues from its workers who sneak gadgets and applications into the workplace. "We keep coming back to the fact that we aren't able to predict every piece of technology that a user could find value in," Dave Asiala, Dow's IT director of shared services, told the Business Technology Blog in The Wall Street Journal.

David Rae, an editor at London-based Financial Director magazine, writes that text messages are starting to be adopted as a useful corporate communications tool, "although a word of advice here: Don't let your HR department anywhere near it."

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