In May 2005, I was asked to present at the EEMA annual conference on the above subject. Given the debate has cropped up again (in BusinessWeek), here’s a short outline of the notes that go with the presentation.

(Note: I presented in my capacity as a technology strategist at Microsoft. Whilst it wasn’t a sales pitch, no prizes for guessing which technologies the screenshots and examples were taken from – hey, they’re the tools that I use and I try to stick to talking about what I know.)

Will IM take over from Email?

When I asked the question in the room, about 10% of the audience responded with yes. They were surprised when I displayed the results from a Sage research paper, released in January 2005. The report showed a much more mixed response: 51% of those surveyed said yes. Why would so many think that IM could replace Email? Do we think IM is a more appropriate tool or are people becoming increasingly frustrated with email?

Is Email dying?

The most recent report from MessageLabs claimed that spam now accounts for three-quarters of all email traffic, up from 40% in 2003. Spam filters have become incredibly effective at blocking spam (I rarely see any in my inbox these days). But the filters are like fishing nets – they catch more than just the fish you want to eat. As a result, people are losing track of important messages. And then there’s the other type of spam…

Have a look through your inbox. How many of the messages could be considered corporate spam: stuff that is sent for people to see, rather than requiring any response? How many ‘me too’ responses thanks to the dreaded ‘Reply-All’ button? This is a real bug-bear – the sending of unnecessary email to unnecessary recipients – see related blog entry: 7 Productivity Tips (point number 3).

What this all adds up to is a drop in productivity – the very opposite to what email is supposed to achieve.

Is there anybody out there?

But there’s a reason why we have come to rely on email for conversations and completing tasks. When you use the telephone, how often do you actually get to speak to a person instead of hearing the answering machine? How often are you advised to contact somebody else? And contacting that person leads to another voicemail… The Guardian ran an article in April 2005 claiming that British companies spend £20billion per year due to inefficiencies caused by playing telephone tag. Rather than being passed from pillar to post on the telephone system, it has become easier to just send out an email to multiple recipients, and then do something else whilst you wait for somebody to reply. Could there be a better way?

(I think context may be required here: When writing the presentation, ‘Star Wars: Episode III’ had just opened at the cinema)

The value IM provides is not so much the ability to send messages instantly but the ability to see presence information. When someone logs on to their computer, their IM status is updated to ‘online’. If their computer is inactive for a period of time, IM status is automatically updated to ‘away’. If you are reviewing a document, seeing the author’s presence online makes it easier to decide when and how to collaborate on the document. The feature becomes invaluable if you are in a distributed organisation, spread across multiple locations and time zones (increasingly likely in this flattened world of ours).

IM can reduce the need for telephone and email tag and dramatically improve productivity where collaboration is required, especially between people who are geographically dispersed. So why have companies been so reluctant to deploy the technology?

Many people worry that IM will cause a distraction and reduce productivity. This is one of those crazy irrational fears – believing people will just use IM to gossip all day… if people are so uninterested in their work, they will gossip with or without IM – that’s what water-coolers were invented for. People also worry that confidential information will be shared over IM. Hmmm… a) the same can happen with email, telephone and any other communication method, and b) IM conversations can be audited if you deploy a corporate IM system as opposed to using consumer versions such as MSN Messenger. And that leads us nicely to some statistics.

  • According to Nucleus Research, in October 2004, 18% of companies had officially deployed an IM solution
  • According to SurfControl, in March 2005, 90% of companies had at least one employee using IM, and 78% of workplace IM users had downloaded the IM software from the Internet.

Ignoring IM is not an option. Just like any other tool that makes collaboration (and work) easier, users will start adopting the technology with, or without, the permission of IT. And I have little patience for IT departments who fight users and prevent them from using new collaboration tools. For most companies, IT is not the reason for existing, IT is an enabler for doing business. If users find IM useful, then it should be encouraged and deployed in a managed environment instead of pretending it isn’t happening or, worse, blocking its use and preventing people from working more effectively.

The use of IM is increasing inside of organisations, whether it’s through official or unofficial channels. The growth is inevitable – we are seeing a generation enter the workforce who have grown up with IM and who consider email to be the new snail mail – something you use to communicate with the oldies (i.e. those who viewed traditional mail in the same light a decade ago). In addition, we are seeing new mobile devices running IM software, enabling people to send IM and participate in a group conversation using their mobile phone (a device previously used for chatting/texting between only two people). And for those oldies amongst us who have embraced IM, it’s becoming easier to communicate when travelling, thanks to the growth in wireless laptops and networks (I can IM someone from a coffee shop far easier and faster than I can access the corporate email system…)

Let’s get together

So what is the future for IM, email and telephony? Unsurprisingly, we are seeing them converge together, providing a single access point for communication. Today, using Microsoft’s Live Communicator, not only do I see an author’s presence information, I can also view their full contact information – email address, telephone number, office location. I can review their calendar and discover their whereabouts, I can see their ‘out of office’ message without having to first send an email to discover they are unavailable… I can choose the most appropriate way of communicating (perhaps even getting up and walking, having discovered their office is just 50 yards away from where I sit) and get on with doing just that – communicating. And because IM has been integrated into Office 2003, I can do this all from within the document I am currently working on, rather than fiddling about with multiple different applications and address books.

The opportunity for IT departments is to apply the lessons learnt from email systems. IM will not be immune to the same challenges email has faced during the past decade.

The challenge for users will be to use the right communication channel for the right message in the right context. And again, email can perhaps lead the way. When I first started deploying email systems (i.e. those that ran on PC-networks – GroupWise, ccMail and Exchange), they were considered useful toys. Since then, they have grown up to become mission critical and unruly. I’ll let the final slide speak for itself:

Maybe improving our use of communications tools isn’t so difficult…


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