What Works Better When

What do I use today?

Over the past year or so, we have written about our own experiences with various community tools, one of which is Lotus’ Instant Messaging (IM) and presence tool, Sametime.  This week we continue our examination.  Since we at Basex live life under a microscope, our habits are fair game for study.

Even the skeptics at Basex now use Sametime*, I can now report.  The ability to find out colleagues’ whereabouts and engage in informal “conversation” has outweighed the fear of being interrupted and having work disrupted.  Many ask, “why couldn’t you just pick up the phone instead of using Sametime?”.  In actuality, the phone is more disruptive.  There are a number of reasons:

1.)   it rings (loudly) and others are made aware of the call.  With instant messaging, one can discretely answer someone’s question (or avoid a third party overhearing).

2.)   one can carry on several IM conversations simultaneously.  This is not possible on the phone, movies showingHollywoodmoguls with three phones in hand notwithstanding.

3.)   it is discreet.  If the user is actually on a phone conversation, that person can query someone else via IM without putting the call on hold.

4.)   it is synchronous, but “less” synchronous than a telephone conversation.  Pauses of more than a moment on the phone are considered rude; this is generally not the case in IM, as only much longer pauses are noticeable.

5.)   several people can “talk” (type) at the same time without being disruptive.

This begets the question, under what circumstances is Sametime (or any enterprise-worthy IM system) “better” than old-fashioned telephony?  Under what circumstances might IM be better than e-mail is a natural follow up question.

It is important to keep in mind that IM is fleeting in a temporal sense.  Just as most face-to-face and telephone conversations do not automatically maintain a record of what was said, neither do IM discussions (unless one user specifically saves the dialogue, which is technically feasible but rarely done).

There are some discussion topics which truly do not have to be memorialized in e-mail, which may be, as Oliver North found out, archived for future generations.  One which comes to mind is lunch and similar topics.  Others which come to mind are discussions which have an importance at the time the question is posed, but have no long-term significance, somewhat along the lines of “are you available to meet in five minutes?”.

This is not at all to say that IM should not be used for serious matters, as we hold meetings via IM on a regular basis.  But what kind of meetings?  One example that comes to mind is on our editorial side.  Since our editorial director is based in London, and most of the analysts are in the United States, these types of meetings are very effective on IM, if not cost effective as well.  One reason for the prevalence of IM is that this type of meeting is what we might call a “part-time meeting.”  We define a part-time meeting as one where participants do not have to pay 100% attention and can do other work simultaneously.

These are supported quite nicely by IM since, unlike leaving a telephone conversation for 30 seconds, one can see everything that was “said” in the IM client window.  Additionally, participants in a part-time meeting can jump in and out of the meeting as necessary.  In fact, participants can be in more than one part-time meeting concurrently.

We have found these meetings far more effective than teleconferences.  Why?  In many teleconferences, one or two people predominate, and others follow along silently.  But the vast majority of participants must stay glued to the phone regardless, in case a tiny tidbit of information requires their attention, or someone directs a specific question to that individual.  With part-time meetings, the lesser-involved meeting participants are able to pay the necessary amount of attention to the dialogue, but not devote their exclusive attention to it.

So what works better when?  The following is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather to speak from our experiences here at Basex.

IM is better than telephone when….

a.) there are many people participating and all need to talk/be active

b.) at least one participant is in an environment where people could listen in, and privacy or confidentiality is an issue

c.) there are a number of many-to-many conversations taking place

Telephone is better than IM when….

a.) there are many people participating passively, and one person speaking (such as a CEO announcing a merger or acquisition)

b.) a more personal touch is required, and the nuances of voice matter (e.g., a  layoff announcement)

E-mail is better than IM when….

a.) the text needs to be memorialized (archived for future reference)

b.) it contains an announcement to be sent to many people

IM is better than e-mail when….

a.) an issue demands an immediate response

b.) the issue is relatively trivial, such as lunch plans

In addition, sometimes IM and e-mail can be used in conjunction with one another, such as a recent instant message I sent to a colleague, asking that he direct his attention to a particularly urgent e-mail I had just dispatched.


More so than ever, instant messaging is more integrated into how we work.  And as bandwidth becomes more pervasive, we have more of an expectation for people to be there – wherever “there” may be.  There are very few productivity tools which can show a marked increase in productivity, but the ability to conduct (multiple) part-time meetings whilst not neglecting other work is a tremendous timesaver.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex


*Sametime is a closed-network, real-time collaboration product that brings together one-on-one discussions and group meetings with a twist, something Lotus terms “awareness.”  Users can locate colleagues online and create personalized lists which are displayed in the Sametime client.  Individual users can control their own access by displaying themselves as “active”, “away”, or “do not disturb.”  Each state of awareness can also display a customized message.

2 Responses to “What Works Better When”