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IM vs. Email in the Office

A recent New York Times article notes that young people prefer using Instant Messaging to Email for their communication. As breaking news goes, it's not exactly the BP Oil Spill. The article goes on to suggest that if you prefer email to Yahoo Chat or Yammer, that somehow you're ready for the retirement home.

Actually, there are a couple of problems with the article. First, using IM isn't exactly a new trend. It's been around for several years. Second, and more importantly, email and IM are not interchangeable tools.

Let's examine the premise that all the kids are doing it and if you aren't using IM at every available opportunity you're probably still listening to Huey Lewis on cassette. Now, kids aren't always wrong (seriously, was Huey Lewis ever cool?) but they're not always right either (there aren't a lot of Four Loko drinkers over the age of 25).

The fact that the newest generation in the workplace doesn't have a lot of patience is no big surprise. I recently found my daughter standing in front of the microwave complaining how long it took to make popcorn. If there's a fast, easy, very cheap way to do something, they'll find it. That's not a bad thing.

However, with communication there are factors besides speed. Clarity, precision and then tone of the communication are also important. Some things need to be thought out, analyzed, rewritten four times and then sent at the right time. Anyone who has ever spent 3 days apologizing for an email it took 30 seconds to write understands what that means.

Whether we should be using one tool over another is a false choice. IM is a synchronous tool- it works best when both parties are engaged in real-time communication and speed matters. Email is an asynchronous tool- it's designed to send messages and allow time to pass before the answers occur. (This is news to many people who send an email and wait tapping their feet for an instant response. You know who you are).

Here are some guidelines as to which tool to use for what purposes:

Instant Messaging is best used when

  • It's a simple question requiring a simple answer. "What time is that conference call?" is the kind of information it's not worth dialing the phone over. It appears in the corner of your screen, you can answer it quickly without even looking up from what you're doing and you both get on with your lives.
  • Timeliness is the key factor in the communication. Let's say you're on a conference call and you want to give some information to the meeting leader in a hurry without interrupting the speaker or sending everyone scurrying into their files- you send it in an IM and no one misses a beat.
  • You already have a working relationship and have developed some short-hand. Most requests for information involve some existing context. You know what the person is talking about and why they want the information. Both parties have also developed enough trust that there isn't a lot of explanation or begging involved. It's a relatively simple transaction.
  • Informality is appropriate. By its nature, instant messaging presumes a peer-to-peer relationship. It also assumes that your request to communicate with them isn't an inconvenience to the other person. (You did think of that before you pinged them, right?)
  • It's just the two of you. While you can have chat sessions with multiple participants, the more people are involved, the more time it takes.
  • You can truly multitask. If you spend a lot of time on the phone, IM is a great way to get informal information to people and serves the same purpose as having your assistant write phone messages on sticky notes and slide them under your door. Many companies use them for this purpose (here's an example).
  • Both parties are working at the same time. The unspoken assumption with IM is that it's instant. The implication is that both parties are working and that the requested communication isn't a big deal for the other person to respond immediately. If you're not available or don't want to be interrupted, use your status updates strategically. If you're online and available, people expect access.
  • At least one of you isn't in the office. To access and use email effectively, it helps to have the program open and access to your data. IM is much more flexible and easier to use when people are in transit. "I'll handle it when I get back to the office" is often the correct answer. At least the other person quits waiting for an answer that isn't coming.
On the other hand, Email can be the best option (really) if:
  • The answer actually requires thought or detail. If the idea of actually researching your answer or taking the time to gather data seems quaint, realize that sometimes one well thought out email can replace multiple panicky instant messages or tweets. The world doesn't organize itself in 140 character bites.
  • Documentation is important. While I firmly believe that long email threads are the work of the devil, it's infinitely easier to track the history of email correspondence than it is your IMs. Email is easy to file and archive. It also gives you an easy to access history to verify your past correspondence. IMs are often treated as disposable communication. Email offers the illusion of permanence. At least until the next server crash.
  • You need to position the request, the information you're sending and who the heck you are. It's only polite to introduce yourself and what you're asking for before intruding on someone's work day. By carefully laying out your request, it also makes it much easier on the other person to respond appropriately.
So with all due respect to the writers at the Grey Lady, the issues isn't that young people use IM while the rest of us struggle through email. It's that no matter who you are you should use the right tool for the job to ensure clarity of communication and productive work.

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photo by flickr user Julia Manzerova CC 2.0
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