Will instant messaging really be a time-saver at work?

Thomas R. Temin

Remember when faxes were exceptional? Because of their expense and relative rarity, at one time an incoming fax was something to stop work for and notice. Then came Federal Express and its clones with the amazing feat of next-day delivery. Now, overnight delivery has become so common that FedEx deliveries sometimes sit in stacks for hours or days before someone opens them.

Then, of course, came e-mail. E-mail is an indispensable medium of communication, but there's too much of it. At the moment, I have 1,800 messages in my two principal in-boxes.

Although I erase 30 or 40 messages a day without even opening them, I keep accumulating messages. Some have a bit of information I vaguely think I might need later. Others have ideas I may want to act on in the future. Still others contain contact information that I hope to get around to putting into my contacts database'eventually.

Now comes instant messaging, something I thought was an idiotic kids' plaything but which is finding its way into offices (see story, Page 31).

Senders using IM know when you are online and that you will see their messages, in contrast with people using the telephone, whose calls you can ignore without them knowing whether you are in your office.

Users could probably live with that situation if IM were only on the LAN, but when connected to the Internet it will be real trouble.

Government offices, or any office for that matter, should use IM the way a nouvelle cuisine chef would use triple-strength hot sauce: very sparingly.

Here's why. With all the incoming channels of communication a government manager must deal with, it's becoming ever more difficult to make deliberate, analytical decisions. Faxes, 10 a.m. package deliveries and e-mail combine with pagers and vibrating cell phones to create a sense of urgency even when there is nothing urgent. Were each medium used only in its appropriate situation, the volume would probably drop by 90 percent. But that just isn't the case.

Instant messaging could exponentially increase your daily interruptions.

Endless interruptions and the seeming urgency of every piece of communication is why people are working longer hours despite the trillions of dollars that have been invested in tools designed to improve office productivity.

Although we're so much more efficient at moving information around and forcing decisions from people we communicate with, people come in early, stay late and toil on Saturdays to do the work that requires real brainpower'the work that managers are actually paid to do.

Incidentally, I also believe the phone-fax-e-mail frenzy is the reason fountain pen use is back on the rise.

Any group putting in IM should require users to sign a pledge that they'll only use it when absolutely necessary.

Violations should be met with punishment: IM scofflaws must stay late every day for a week to shred the faxes.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.