More offices smile on using IM
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When Charity McDowell started working as a recruiter at Ariba last year, she saw her colleagues using instant messaging on their computers and couldn't understand why.
She had used the software before to chat with friends and family, but given that the Downtown business-to-business software and services company had provided her with e-mail and a phone, IM -- as instant messaging is called -- seemed redundant. Besides, her previous job had banned instant messaging, viewing it as a time-waster.
But times change quickly when it comes to technology. Just as e-mail supplanted faxes in many offices, so is IM replacing e-mail. "It's so easy to talk back and forth on instant messaging," she said. "People have a ton of e-mails and it can take them a while to go through them."
Indeed, despite its reputation as a toy for teenagers, instant messaging is starting to gain acceptance as an efficiency tool in the workplace. A late 2004 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project pegged the number of American adults using IM at work at 11 million. And a Gartner study released in December predicted that by 2010, 90 percent of people with business e-mail accounts will also have IM accounts.
Essentially, the software -- several versions of which can be downloaded for free -- lets users conduct online conversations in real time without all that annoying, and time-consuming, spam. It also allows users and their contacts to say whether they are logged off, busy or available -- something e-mail typically doesn't do unless a user creates an automatic reply.
A recent IM conversation at Ariba illustrated the technology's appeal.While phones, faxes and e-mails remain popular, instant messaging is starting to gain acceptance as an efficiency tool in the workplace.
Click photo for larger image.
AAK: Asleep At Keyboard
BRB: Be right back
BTW: By the way
COB: Close of Business
EOD: End of day
EOQ: End of quarter
FWIW: For What It's Worth
GTG: Got to Go
J/C: Just Checking
LOL: Laughing out loud
NP: No Problem
RN: Right Now
OTP: On The Phone
ROTFL: Rolling On The Floor Laughing
TY: Thank you
On one afternoon this month, Ms. McDowell noticed that Christine Crandell, vice president of corporate marketing for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Ariba, was logged on as available.
With a "Hi Christine" greeting from Ms. McDowell, the two opened up an instant messaging conversation. In less than two minutes, they had exchanged about 10 messages coordinating details for a new hire visiting Pittsburgh from Sunnyvale.
"It grows on you. It really does grow on you," said Ms. Crandell, who works out of the Sunnyvale office and also had initial doubts about IM.
The appeal of the software, its users say, is its immediacy. Rather than an e-mail that might sit ignored in an inbox, an IM invitation pops right up on the computer screen, flashing until it gets attention. Once the request to chat is accepted, the pop-up window stays open until the users log off, allowing for steady back and forth communication.
"If there's a deadline, we can get more done using IM than e-mail," said Ms. Crandell.
The appeal of IM also highlights some of the flaws of e-mail, the backbone of corporate Internet communications.
In part because of the need to create a more efficient alternative to e-mail, Robinson-based startup SalesGene Corp. developed a product that allows companies to communicate with each other by posting messages and documents on secure Web sites.
"E-mail is not the answer for all types of communication," said Razi Imam, SalesGene's chief executive officer. "It's overstretched."
Mr. Imam said that the main flaws of e-mail are the sheer volume received -- he said he gets hundreds per day -- and the uncertainty of whether it reached its destination, partly because of firewalls and spam filters.
IM can improve both of those problems. And more companies are starting to use it as people move from job to job, spreading IM to new places. Ed Brunins, now senior director of Web business development at Vivisimo, a technology company in Squirrel Hill, formerly worked for four years at America Online in Virginia.
At AOL, instant messaging was ubiquitous. When he came to Vivisimo, it wasn't commonly used, but he couldn't work without it.
"It's easier to IM than it is to e-mail," he said. "Plus, it's more conversational."
When Mr. Brunins contacts someone to open an IM conversation, he starts with a polite "hi, yt?" an abbreviation for "you there."
Ms. Crandell said she also finds herself using common IM abbreviations -- although obviously not the "pos" or "parent over shoulder" used by teenagers.
Rather, she uses "u" for "you" or "np" for "no problem."
"I write things in instant messaging that I don't in e-mail," she said. "It is a different type of communication."
IM is also different than e-mail in that users can communicate with multiple people at one time. "It's great for daily conference calls and staff meetings," said Chris Bondurant, executive director of networking at wireless giant Cingular's Downtown office. "You can have three or four screens up and talk to five or six different people."
Mr. Bondurant said that he probably sends between 25 and 50 instant messages a day. Still, he said, it's only a "select few" in the company who use IM -- in the low hundreds, he said, out of thousands that work for Cingular.
As useful as IM can be, there are drawbacks. Internet-based IM systems such as America Online's instant messager (or AIM, used by most of the companies interviewed for this article), are more vulnerable to hacking than internal e-mail systems.
"I try not to do anything that's proprietary, or transfer files through IM," said Mr. Brunins.
There are some secure IM products available, a market that the Gartner report predicted would grow by 20 percent per year for the next three years.
In addition to the security hazards, some find the constant presence of IM distracting. Ms. McDowell said that her initial set-up of IM had the chat invitations popping up in the middle of her screen -- she adjusted them to appear in her lower toolbar to make them less prominent.
The Pew Internet & American Life report noted that 29 percent of those who use the IM at work say it has been distracting and 32 percent believe that it encourages gossip.
Ms. Cranwell at Ariba said that she had heard about abuses, such as chatting with friends or gossiping, but that hasn't been her experience.
"For us, it really is a tool," she said. "You don't use IM to talk to friends and family. You use IM because it gets you that extra 10 to 15 minutes to get lunch."
First Published June 25, 2006 12:00 am