Instant and not so instant messaging at work

I’m intrigued by different levels of instant messaging uptake in corporate culture. I acknowledge up front that constant mixed-initiative interruptions to ones workflow can be harmful, but note that many people in low or no-IM work cultures have their pop up mail notifiers enabled to the same effect. In fact despite its fundamentally asynchronous purpose, due to most people’s evolved expectations about instaneous responses to electronic communications, email ends up being overloaded as a poor-man’s IM system, which should never happen. Most emails aren’t important, and anything really urgent should be a phone call, walk-by or IM, because one shouldn’t reasonably expect someone to read your email in the next 5 minutes.

At IBM, where IM is practically the pulse of the company and “pinged” has become a verb meaning to contact via Sametime (due to its annoying ping noise), I used to productively work with people across the country, and even the globe via IM that I never met and only rarely talked to. I would never have thought that there really are companies out there that get by without centralized IM, in which you can reasonably expect to get a hold of anyone in the corporate directory via IM.

Turns out there are – at my current job, which still has its small company culture less than 6 months after being aquired by Oracle, there is no real use of IM ( despite Oracle having a centralized IM system, which I’ve heard is quite busy in “mainline” Oracle, many people on my team don’t bother to sign in there ). – sure there are isolated pockets of instant messaging via Yahoo or AOL, but if you or the person one needs to reach are not there, then its back to email. New hires also incur a cost of gathering up everyones screennames. Or walking to their office, and while I’m all for face to face interaction, an IM can be nice so you at least know person X is going to be in their office when you get there (or just buddy-list awareness if its properly done…)

The differing philosphies behind who one can see as a member of an IM network at IBM vs Oracle are interesting to note. Basically the differences are opt-in vs opt-out. On IBM Sametime, one can see the status of and contact any user who hasn’t specifically chosen to block/hide from you. On Oracle RTC, based on Jabber (which allows any jabber client to connect), one is required to send each person who is not in one’s immediate department a message to request that person allow you to see his or her online status and message him or her. So to accrue one’s O(n2) network effect, you have to exchange n2 messages. That just seems silly in a corporation where everyone should be working towards some version of the same goal, playing by the same rules (and to enforce proper behavior, ultimately accountable to the same HR dept). At least both of these approches enforce reciprocity- if I don’t want you to seem me, I can’t see you. I’m not a fan of the (somewhat) recent “innovation” in AIM of being invisible.

Like most things, I really miss having a “real” IM system available at work. Let’s count the ways:

  • Knowing when someone gets to work without having to walk by their office a gazillion times
  • Leaving messages with people who aren’t in their offices or who are busy at the time a visit is attempted
  • Productive (and often not-so-productive) back channel conversations on meetings in person (also requires laptop/wireless culture)
  • Quick questions that won’t take long to answer
  • The list goes on..

A healthy blend of all kinds of collaboration is a good thing. Given that free servers (like Jabber) are available, I personally couldn’t imagine letting a company grow beyond 10 people without a central directory and IM service.

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