Communications: Faster and shorter

Instant messaging is slowly becoming legitimate in the corporate world.

It’s not unusual for Accenture consultants in North America to trade hundreds of online messages looking for data, approvals or project alerts. But their chosen medium might be surprising. More often than not, their computers and smart phones display the red-, yellow- and green-flagged contact lists that are the hallmark of instant messaging. “This is fast becoming our primary mode of communication,” says Bob Hersch, a global lead for the firm’s infrastructure consulting practice in New York.

Long associated with cyber-chatty Gen Yers — and banned outright in some offices — IM’s reputation as a time-wasting workplace distraction is changing. It should, according to researchers at Ohio State University and the University of California–Irvine, who say the medium’s short, targeted notes can actually boost productivity. After questioning predominantly American professional, management and finance workers about their on-the-job communications habits, they found regular IM users reported fewer interruptions and better productivity than non-users, even if they spend the same amount of time on work-related exchanges. The findings — published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication — conclude that “workers are developing effective strategies for using IM technologies.”

Although IM is technically another interruption — just like an e-mail or a phone call — it’s a more efficient one, says James Danziger, a professor at UC Irvine’s School of Social Sciences, who co-authored the study with OSU communications professor R. Kelly Garrett. For instance, IM lets users flag their availability. “When you send an IM, you’re expecting a near-instantaneous response, unlike e-mail, where you send it off into cyberspace and have no idea when they’ll get back to you,” Danziger says. This “presence awareness” lets workers make targeted queries that get what they need immediately. On the flip side, it also lets colleagues know when to back off.

The medium’s other secret weapon is a user culture that accepts curt, unadorned messages. In an e-mail, a “yes” or “yeah” looks terse and rude, “but in an IM, it’s all you need,” notes Mike Dover, vice-president of syndicated research at IT consultant nGenera in Toronto. Instant messages also discourage the polite small talk that often creeps into voice- or video-based systems. The study notes that frequent users often don’t perceive the pop-up messages as disruptive as a phone call or visit.

The Gartner Group, an IT researcher, estimates 35% of larger companies use formalized IM systems, but “underground” use probably puts that figure “closer to 80%,” says Dover. If security is paramount, the best way to stop furtive messaging is to develop an in-house IM system, he suggests. That’s what one of his former employers — a software firm — did to regain control and increase security. Ultimately, “they got tired of telling us not to do it.”