Carl Tyler on Instant Messaging Etiquette

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

I was interviewing Carl Tyler (an old friend who serves as the CTO of Instant Technologies) for the upcoming Collaborative Technologies 2006 event. Although we started on the general topics underlying "The State Of The Real-Time Enterprise" -- the presentation he will be giving there -- we wandered into an interesting area that I thought waas worthy of a post all of its own: instant messaging etiquette. Here are Carl's considered thoughts on the subject.

Stowe: What is your ideal for a real-time enterprise, and have companies progressed far enough along to be considered members of that group? What would be the ideal enterprise to make use of real-time capabilities?

Carl: There are a few things that I consider useful, if not essential, for an organization to be "real-time". The first has to be the mindset of the management within the company. If a company doesn't have a trust in their employees to do their job, then an untrusting management can create issues, especially when they walk down the corridor and see people IMing each other. For a company to really be a real-time enterprise then it helps if the products they use can work together. Email integrated with IM and phone systems, IM with phones and email, etc. A user should be able to connect to one form of real-time application to another. A company that understands the benefits of education/training will often get benefits sooner than a company that doesn't invest in education. IM in itself is easy for most users to understand, but as IM integrates with phone systems, has the ability to create conference calls, start screen sharing etc., then things can be a little more compliocated for users -- but these are the very features that will give a company bigger payback than just using IM alone. There are some real-time enterprises out there today, but very few have fully embraced all the technologies available.

Stowe: What are the key elements of IM etiquette that companies need to adopt to get real?

Carl: There area a few key etiquette elements that can help IM be successful, which are:

  • Use Status and Status descriptions effectively. If you don't want to be disturbed, then be sure to set your IM status to DND, if you're away from your desk but don't mind being contacted, add your telephone number to your status description.
  • IM isn't email. Keep your messages focused and to the point. If it's going to take a few lines to send the message, think about whether email would be better. Use emoticons when required. IM messages can often come across with the wrong tone, so use emoticons (smiley faces) to indicate the tone of your message.

  • Be careful when using acronyms. You maybe an IM veteran, but not everyone knows what ROFL, LOL or BRB mean.

  • Don't be afraid to use the phone. Often as IM conversations go on it can become tedious to type everything you want to say, so when it makes sense convert your IM conversation into a telephone or video call.

  • Don't hide behind IM. If you wouldn't say something to someone if they were standing in front of you, what makes it OK to say it via IM?

  • And along the lines of the first suggestion, when you leave the office, or you're done for the day, log off from your IM system. That way people know you're not there -- versus just not responding to their requests.

  • If you're on the phone with one person, or someone comes into your office to chat, try and avoid still taking part in IM conversations. People can hear the distraction across the phone, and the person in the room can see you ignoring them. Ask the IM party, or the person that entered you room to hold on one second. Now having said that, there are times when you may be on the phone when IM makes perfect sense, for example when negotiating with a customer and you need to check what can be delivered etc. with someone else.

  • Be aware of other people's typing skills. You may type 100 words a minute, but your colleague may only manage 20, so be sure to check that the IM conversation you're having is still the same one the other person thinks they're having.

  • Be aware that CAPS LOCK in the IM world is considered shouting, use it when you want to draw attention to something, or make a point. Don't type entire paragraphs with the CAPS LOCK key on.

  • When it makes sense bring in other people, most IM systems allow what is called N-Way chat, where you can have more than two people in the conversation. If you need to involve somebody else, bring them into the conversation.

    On one hand, Carl's advice may seem almost banal, but, when I was working on a similar etiquette list a few years ago with Microsoft, they found that lack of familiarity and a sense of "not knowing how to act" in instant messaging was considered one of the three largest barriers to adoption of the technology in corporations. Remember that the purposes of etiquette are to make sure that no one is offended, and no one causes offense -- the fear of which can paralyze social interaction. Clearly, walking people -- and management, in particular -- through the basic lay-of-the-land for instant messaging is a critical aspect of an enterprise getting on a real-time footing.