I’ve been on several projects, now that use IM (Instant Messenger) to allow project team members to easily have quick chats to get information and resolve issues. I’ve noticed that different teams seem to feel differently about its effectiveness as a communications tool. So far, most teams have found it useful but I have run across a team where a number of people think it’s the most useless, disruptive, terrible thing ever invented — that it’s merely one more reason they can never get anything done, because they have endless IMs popping-up on their screen all the time.

People are Different, But…
Part of the variety in reaction to IM can be put down to the fact that people are all different. We have different communication styles, for one, and that probably plays a large part in the way people view various communication tools; however, keep in-mind that most project teams do actually have a variety of people on them and, while some team members are more or less fond of IM based on their own personal preference, the extreme, dark feelings some team members have for this tool appear to be based more on the way the team is using them.

Thus, here are three ways in which teams seem to use this tool differently and that I think has to do with its effectiveness versus its ability to drive team members totally nuts:

1. Statuses should be both defined and respected. I’ve noticed that those teams that use “Busy” or “In a Meeting” to mean that the person shouldn’t be disturbed unless it’s absolutely necessary tend to find IM a useful tool. In other teams where people are not particularly hesitant to disturb a team member who is otherwise engaged, they have more team members who dislike the tool and find it disruptive. So, set rules and make them semi-formal. I just mean that they need to be written somewhere so you can hand them to new team members as opposed to making them guess what the rules are, but leave a little to people’s judgement so that you don’t need a 100-page document to cover it all.

2. Every tool has its place. To the person who would respond to (1) by saying that it’s the only way to get ahold of a person, that’s a different problem. If you have something long and technical to send, e-mail is better than IM. If you just want to notify the person of some piece of information, leave a VoiceMail. If the President of the company is walking around looking for this other person, that is probably a valid reason to interrupt their meeting with an IM.  And, if an IM session isn’t going well — if it’s full of confusion, then it’s probably time to pick up the phone to discuss what direction to take, next. I’ve found that most people know when they’ve hit this particular wall, though.

3.  It’s just another piece of software and its use needs definition. While I don’t see tools like IM being used on every project, for those projects where it’s being used, it’s probably there to stay. If your team has problems with it, discuss how to use it more effectively. If there are major complaints about it, then it truly is keeping people from being productive as opposed to helping their productivity and you need to do something about that. Ironically, the project teams that have the worst time crunches are the ones with the worst problems with this tool because they don’t think they can make the time to fix the problem, thus letting it all get incredibly worse on a daily basis.

Gloria Metrick
GeoMetrick Enterprises