Friday, February 25, 2011

Why I Love to Use Instant Messaging for Work

Back in one of my computer science courses at university (an easier one, titled Implications of Computing in Society, or something like that), my prof suddenly went on a rant.  He complained about how kids were getting into something as useless as instant messaging.  He gave an anecdote about how his niece was typing away on a computer at home, chatting with her friends.  She was having fun, he was dumbfounded.  He asked her why she was using instant messaging instead of the phone, or (the horror), meeting face to face.  She stared at him, then said, "It's fun!"  He tried to pull his hair out.

We listened to him rant about this story and the stupidity and uselessness of instant messaging for a bit.  Then he asked again.  Why??

So I thought for a bit.  Then I replied.

"Because it enables people to have individual discussions with each other."

He stared at me incredulously.

Prof:  "We're having discussions right now in this lecture hall!  We have an amazing forum of conversations right here!"
Me:  "But I can't have an individual discussion with that guy over there."
Prof:  "Nothing's stopping you!  This is what you're supposed to be doing here!  Discussions!  Learning from each other!"
Me:  "Instant messaging increases the cardinality of discussions."
Prof:  ...  (deer caught in headlights feeling; light bulb moment); "And just WHAT is cardinality!"
Me:  /gotcha! (small victory, but sweet)

In SQL-style databases (like Oracle, MS SQL Server, MySQL, etc), cardinality refers to the basic mechanism of how data relates to each other.  Basically, data can be structured to have 1-to-many, many-to-many, or 1-to-1 relationships.  For example, a data object representing a bookshelf could have a 1-to-many relationship with all the books it holds: 1 bookshelf has many books, but the reverse is not the same because each book sits on only 1 bookshelf (1 physical book cannot be in 2 places at once).  However, such exclusivity does not exist for word usage.  Each book contains many words, but likewise, each of those words are also probably contained in many books; that's a many-to-many relationship.  Finally, 1-to-1 relationships can be seen in each book's ISBN number.  Each book has only 1 ISBN number, but each ISBN number also belongs to only 1 book.  If you model your data well, then your database will be an amazing foundation for organizing and tracking anything.  Of course, it gets a bit more complicated when you have multiple copies of the same book, meaning that there will then be a 1-to-many relationship between ISBN numbers and books (i.e. each ISBN number will be used by multiple physical books, but each physical book will have only 1 ISBN number).  This is why libraries will create their own bar codes for their books instead of using the ISBN bar codes.  It can get complicated.

My prof knew exactly what cardinality was.  He was the exact same prof who originally taught me in my discrete mathematics class in my very 1st semester.  He was a fun guy.
I suddenly thought about this verbal exchange a few months ago when I came to the realization that I had been using IM regularly for work-related purposes for several years now.  Instant Messaging is no longer just the realm of friends chatting with each other.  It actually has a productivity quotient that is quite relevant in the workplace, as most communication-related technologies do.  Some may take it to an extreme, of course, which may or may not be good for your work culture.
Zuckerberg preferred instant messaging, using AOL Instant Messenger (AIM).  One employee a few years older who sat about six feet from Zuckerberg in those days received an IM from the boss.  "Hey," it read.  It was the first time he'd gotten such a message.  So, seeking to be convivial, this guy stood up from his chair, turned to Zuckerberg, and said out loud in a friendly voice "Hey!"  Zuckerberg continued staring blankly at his screen.  It wasn't even clear if he had heard.  If you wanted to communicate, you IM'd.
from Chapter 6, The Facebook Effect, by David Kirkpatrick

In my experience, instant messaging has both advantages and disadvantages (what technology doesn't), but more advantages than disadvantages.  I aim to discuss all that here.

This paragraph does not discuss the topic you thought it would.  IM is fast not because IM is instant.  It's fast because people can read at a very fast speed.  According to Wikipedia (a good a source as any for this particular topic), the average American adult can read 250 to 300 words per minute.  I imagine that the statistic must be fairly similar for equally or more educated folks of other nations.  Fair assumption?  Now while the article also claims that adults can listen at a speed of up to 300 words per minute, how many people do you know that talk that fast?  For reference sake, the article claims that auctioneers speak at 250 words per minute.  So in voice-based conversations, you're limited by your speaking speed.  In text-based conversations, you're limited by your typing speed, but many people can actually type pretty fast in today's knowledge workforce, though usually slower than they speak.  However, this is compensated by the fact that you can type while the other person is reading your first message, and even more while they are typing a response.  IM lends itself to allowing you to break up your messages into little pieces so that this staggered manner of reading and feedback can take place more efficiently.  Throw in IM-speak and acronyms, and you can actually get really fast conversations.  Or if you prefer, you can allow your reading speed to simply give you more time to comprehend what you just read.  Difficult to constantly pause like that during a spoken conversation.

This is the topic you expected.  Nothing much to say here.  Instant messages are instant.  Your IM list is usually open all the time.  People can instantly send messages, instantly receive, and instantly reply.  It`s perfect for quick questions.  You just find the name of the person you need in your list, double click, type, and send away.  Much easier than looking up the phone number of that same person and punching in numbers (unless you use your cell).  Or writing a new email through your email client.  So that's fast, but more important, it's easy and has little activity overhead.  You're already touching your keyboard and mouse anyway, so it's easy to fit it into the flow of what you're already doing.  Just remember to stretch your wrists now and then to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome.

IM can scale up.  Need to have a whole hour-long meeting with multiple folks involved?  IM can do that.  Need to share files with each other to make points, explain details, discuss?  IM can do that.  Need to keep a record of what was said for later reference and meeting minutes?  IM can do that.  Want people to leave you alone?  IM can let you appear offline or set to a Do Not Disturb mode where you can't receive messages.  Need secure solutions?  There are IM options out there that will let you run private IM platforms inside your secure corporate network without ever needing to touch the Internet.  Need to share what's happening on your computer screen so everyone else can explain your design, plan, or problem?  IM can do that these days.  Need to do video or voice just because for whatever reason, you can't make your point in text?  Heck, IM can do that too, though I never find it necessary.

I hinted at this earlier.  The nature of IM allows you to make a judgment about each message and respond at your own pace.  When you receive someone's message you can decide if it's important and needs your immediate attention.  If not, you can ask them to wait and you'll respond later (or just ignore the message).  You can't make that kind of snap judgment as easily when receiving phone calls.  How cumbersome is it to pick up the phone, listen to what people have to say, and then ask them to call you back in 30 minutes?  Except in 30 minutes, you're not ready to talk with them, so you have to ask them to call again.  Email has this asynchronous attribute, but you don't want to fill up people's inboxes with such petty chat.  It's difficult to maintain the mountain of messages that exists in one's inbox, so you want to keep the signal-to-noise ratio fairly high; email's most effective if you use it mainly for official and important communication and decisions.  But I easily receive more than a hundred emails a day sometimes.  I better not be expected to immediately sift through every single email to separate the signal from the noise.

Because you don't need to respond to messages instantaneously, this allows you to easily do something that you can't do with other communication mediums: have conversations with multiple people all at the same time.  Imagine you're having a conversation with Person A.  Person B suddenly messages you.  While you're waiting for Person A to respond to your latest comment, you answer person B.  While you are speaking with Person B, Person C messages you.  You see that Person C's message is just asking about watching the hockey game later, so you focus on speaking with Person A and Person B.  When there's a break in the flow of conversation, you switch to Person C and decide what should be eaten for dinner.  And it's all easy to do because the chat windows keep track of what you're all saying.  Try having 3 simultaneous conversations with 3 different people via phone.  First, you'd need 3 phones; constantly putting people on hold and switching back and forth would not cut it.  Secondly, who likes staying on the line to wait for you to respond to other people all throughout the conversation?  Email?  Yeah, you could do it through email because it's also asynchronous.  But each email thread wouldn't be self-contained within its own window, so you'd just clutter up your inbox and kill your ability to manage it; that's especially true when your conversation gets to about 100 sentences back and forth.  Ultimately, it is just so amazing to not know the answer to a question in a meeting, message someone who does know, and then explain the answer within minutes of the question asked, if not seconds.

Virtual Teams
IM isn't the only way to work with virtual teams, especially if team members are located around the globe.  But it makes things a heck of a lot easier.  I hope the reasons are obvious.  It's easier (and in most cases, cheaper) to send an instant message to someone on the other side of the world than it is to phone them, especially if it's for something quick.

Leveling the Language Field
This is really important if you have international teammates.  Not everyone can speak the same language.  However, I have found that many international folk can read and write a really good amount of English.  And even with the ones who can speak English, sometimes the accent is so thick that you can't understand what they're saying.  China, Korea, India, Russia, etc, they all occasionally have this problem.  But written English.  No problems with accents there.  I'm often in meetings where people ask someone to just type the information or question into the group chat window instead of speaking, and then suddenly everyone understands the issue.  In the interests of clarity and speed with international teams, IM is amazingly useful.  Maybe occasionally you'll find some poor grammar and vocabulary, but it wouldn't be anything that would kill the conversation.  If someone's English really isn't good enough to have even a rough conversation, you have bigger problems.  Perhaps you should have hired some translators or learned the other language from the beginning.  Or maybe you shouldn't be working with those people if you can't communicate with them.

Now there are obviously detriments to IM as well.  Some people aren't as good communicating via text as they are in person, you lose the facial expressions, and some people have a really poor typing speed.  But in my experience so far, I find that the advantages have far outweighed the disadvantages.  As well, IM tends to create its own replacement devices for everything that it doesn't have.  For example, IM-speak and emoticons allow people to express humour and laughter.  ( LOL, ic :D )  Furthermore, if people were absolutely unable to communicate emotion through text, then everything I learned regarding poetry and prose in high school is a lie.

Give IM a try, you might find it worthwhile. :)


  1. "I'm often in meetings where people ask someone to just type the information or question into the group chat window instead of speaking" <== now that is very fascinating to learn about re: multiculturalism, linguists, transnational colleagues, etc. and really, a very simple concept. its also very businesslike, in the sense that its efficient.

  2. Oh! Oh! -Raises hand into the air-!!! About library systems, yes, that is absolutely why we have different classification systems, eg. Dewey, LOC, AACR2, etc., and why corporate libraries/repositories create their own taxonomic systems. If we have multiple copies of the same resource, we usually use the same record and call number and indicate in the record that there are additional copies, i.e. c. 1, c. 2, c. 3, etc. on the spine label.