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6/11/2006
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What works better when? How to survive in the knowledge economy.

Workers in today’s offices find a plethora of communications tools with which to communicate and collaborate.  But which tools are appropriate for a given circumstance.  Over the past couple of years, I have interviewed countless knowledge workers about their usage habits with respect to various real-time tools, and queried them to find out what works better under which circumstances.

Many knowledge workers still think of the telephone first and foremost when it comes to real-time communications.  The uninitiated might ask, “why couldn’t you just pick up the phone instead of using IM?”.  In actuality, the phone may be more disruptive in many cases.  There are a number of reasons:1.)  It rings (loudly sometimes) and others may be made aware of the call.  With instant messaging, one can discreetly answer someone’s enquiry (and avoid a third party overhearing).
2.)  One can carry on several IM conversations simultaneously.  This is not possible on the phone, movies showing Hollywood moguls with three phones in hand notwithstanding.
3.)  IM is discreet.  If the user is actually on a phone conversation, that person can query someone else via IM without putting the call on hold.
4.)  IM is synchronous, but “less” synchronous than a telephone conversation.  Pauses of more than a moment on the phone are considered rude; this is generally not the case in IM, as only much longer pauses are noticeable.
5.)  Using IM, several people can “talk” (type) at the same time without being disruptive

This begets the question, under which circumstances is IM “better” than old-fashioned telephony?  And, while we’re at it, under which circumstances might IM be more appropriate than e-mail.

There are some discussion topics that truly do not have to be memorialized in e-mail, which may be, as Oliver North found out, archived for future generations.  In addition, the user must be aware of others’ presence awareness states, such as “available,” “do not disturb,” “away from my office momentarily,” etc.  

One phenomenon I have observed is a type of meeting that we might call a “part-time meeting.”  We can define a part-time meeting as one where participants do not have to pay 100% attention and can do other work simultaneously.

These are supported quite nicely by IM since, unlike leaving a telephone conversation for 30 seconds, one can see everything that was “said” in the IM client.  Additionally, participants in a part-time meeting can jump in and out of the meeting as necessary.  In fact, participants can be in more than one part-time meeting concurrently.  

These meetings are far more effective than teleconferences.  Why?  In many teleconferences, one or two people predominate, and others follow along silently.  But the vast majority of participants must stay glued to the phone regardless, in case a tiny tidbit of information requires their attention, or someone directs a specific question to that individual.  With part-time meetings, the lesser-involved meeting participants are able to pay the necessary amount of attention to the dialogue, but not devote their exclusive attention to it.  

So what works better when?  Here’s my personal take:

IM is better than telephone when....

  • There are many people participating and all need to talk/be active
  • At least one participant is in an environment where people could listen in, and privacy or confidentiality is an issue
  • There are a number of many-to-many conversations taking place

Telephone is better than IM when....
  • There are many people participating passively and one person is speaking (such as when the CEO announces a merger or acquisition)
  • A more personal touch is required and the nuances of voice matter (e.g., breaking bad news)

E-mail is better than IM when....
  • The text needs to be memorialized (archived for future reference, although more and more companies are archiving IM sessions)
  • It contains an announcement to be sent to many people

IM is better than e-mail when....
  • An issue demands an immediate response, i.e. it is both urgent and important
  • The issue is relatively trivial, such as lunch plans

Collaborative technologies are becoming more and more integrated into how we work.  As these become more pervasive within organizations, we will have more of an expectation for people to be there – wherever “there” may be.

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