Now's the time to plan for IM

According to John Caudwell, head of UK mobile phone retailer Phones 4U, he banned inter-office email from his company and reaped an immediate productivity increase of three hours a day per employee.

According to John Caudwell, head of UK mobile phone retailer Phones 4U, he banned inter-office email from his company and reaped an immediate productivity increase of three hours a day per employee.

If we accept this claim at face value, we're forced to ask should every organisation follow his lead?

The short, and short-sighted, answer is of course we should. The problem with an automatic ban based on his results is that Caudwell's company isn't your company, therefore his solutions are not necessarily your solutions. Nevertheless, the timing of the discussion is perfect, as many organisations sniff around instant messaging.

IM is an increasingly hot topic. In the UK, short message services (SMS) recently generated more than 30 million messages nationwide in a single day. Whether we like it or not, IM will undergo the same growth, especially if telcos convince us that IM is the next silver bullet for productivity problems.

The telco strategy is to suggest that IM increases productivity by allowing us to contact anyone, anywhere, anytime.

What a wonderful and desirable thing. Busy and, hence, very important people need information now. Just call out to the nearest assistant and get our informational needs filled immediately. There is no argument. If we can reduce the time between informational need and gratification, then we have become more efficient and productive.

I have a very different perspective on IM. Full disclosure forces me to confess I don't own a cellphone, and I don't usually answer ringing phones when I'm immersed in thought -- calls go to the answering machine. Why? Because when I'm working the most unproductive thing I can do is stop my train of thought to turn away yet another telemarketer.

Interruptions significantly reduce our effectiveness, productivity and, perhaps most importantly, the quality of our work. If we are rational, logical human beings, we must assume this is true for everyone else.

Aside from the cost of workis interruptus, there is also a question about the quality of messages. How much of our daily email is non-work related? How many are nothing more than the childhood pastime of passing notes in school? Is there anything to suggest we'll IM differently? Will it degenerate into the communication of sports scores, who got voted off the island, and jokes?

But ... IM is the latest thing and trying to hold it back is a pointless exercise. IM will edge its way into our organisations, simply because it's new and fashionable.

What, if anything, can we do to minimise the negative and maximise the benefits?

Plan ahead. Create usage standards before we find ourselves surrounded by white noise with zero content. Define in advance the types of messages we'll send on IM. Set reasonable guidelines on when we can send messages. What is a timely response?

Preliminary guidelines, created during pilot projects, might help us avoid organisations operating under the belief that the beeping machine ("expletive deleted" coincidental, but probably appropriate) is more important than the person attached to the hand we were warmly shaking.

We will inevitably embrace IM. The irony is that we complain people resist change ... but when we should resist a change ... we don't.

De Jager is a management consultant. Contact him via his website.

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