Instant Messaging in the Modern Business World: The Case for and Against

Synchronous communication refers to the kind of communication you’re having when you’re on an Instant Messenger (IM). Your conversation is happening in ‘real time’ – there’s a continuous stream of data between the two of you, with negligible delay between the sending and receipt of information. This contrasts with asynchronous communication – say, for example, via emailed solutions. You send your message and there’s an appreciable period of time in which that information lies dormant until it is acted upon.

The business world has really caught up to the value of blending synchronous and asynchronous communication. E-mail is still king among businesses – a vast amount of formal and informal communication is still sent via e-mail, but there are some cases where some online tools, such as Google Docs, or mind-mapping tool MindMeister, might just provide the synchronicity you need to collaborate more efficiently.

The case for:

  • It’s real-time. Brainstorming can’t happen via e-mail – the period between receipt and re-envisage is just too long. It’s even hindered by IM programs like Skype – there’s a communication disconnect between creative thinking  and typing a description of it in to a tiny white box. Luckily, there are a host of tools out there to enable a more hands-on approach for teams.
  • Feedback is instantaneous. Personally, I prefer to be walked through a design collaboratively over being sent periodic revisions. That’s why we have meetings in the first place;  everyone is up to speed, and feedback can be tailored on-the-fly. That’s the sort of thing that can only happen if your communication is synchronous.
  • It’s not just text. Often text just isn’t conducive to getting across what you want to say. From real-time shared whiteboards to online mind-mapping, collaborative cork-boards to real-time spreadsheet editing – sometimes you need a wider range of communication tools than are afforded by even the most well-written of emails.

The case against:

  • Little reflection time. This is actually a big drawback. If you’re anything like me, an email is a carefully sculpted body of sensitively phrased information. I edit and revise my emails compulsively. Real-time collaboration? That’s just not there. And that can lead to…
  • Misunderstandings. I re-write my emails because I want to express something in a way that the recipient will take in the way I intend it. Tools like IM and mind-mapping strip out that human interaction element. If you add some web video, you can pack a little back in, but there’s nothing more soothing than a well-written letter.
  • If you don’t have the tech, you don’t have the tools. Most online collaboration tools require specific software (usually a particular browser) to run them, and sometimes that’s just not available. If the collaboration software is optimized for desktops, you might have a tricky time operating them on a tablet. That’s quite a pain, particularly if you chose synchronous communication for its many-to-many capabilities. It’s kind of hamstrung by inter-platform incompatibility at the moment, but watch this space.
  • Email solutions are supported by bigger companies. Several companies offer emailed solutions to their clients. They aim to prevent email service outages, provide protection against viruses, and create archiving and storage options for their clients’ email history. This makes it easy for businesses across the world to focus on growing their businesses, and not on the next synchronous fad. Most companies that offer this string the whole package together in to an ‘email solutions’ option – the application of which can help to simplify the communications state of affairs.

Nothing’s perfect, business collaboration tools least of all. But they all offer a unique and potentially creativity-unlocking way of communicating around a problem. So, next time you’re tempted to fire off that team-wide e-mail, see if it isn’t worth hosting an online meeting to get your idea pitched instead.

Learn more the author of this post:

Daniel Moeller
I was born in Berlin, Germany, studied Engineering in London and wrote my thesis on emergent computer technology. I now work as an engineer and freelance writer for London-based firms. My interests include blogging about technology, computer science, social media and design in my spare time.