Saturday, June 10, 2006

Instant Messaging

Instant communication seems to be elusive in our personal and business lives. The telephone and e-mail were both supposed to be the solutions to these challenges, yet it seems that “instant” is a moving target. Every time a new technology promises “instant” communication, something else promises us delays. Let me explain.

Once upon a time, the telephone was the pinnacle of instant communication. For almost a hundred years, when a phone call was answered, it was a person you spoke with. Changes in business, society and technology introduced delays to this method of communication. People no longer stay near a phone at home or the office throughout the day. Answering machines, voice-mail and caller ID help us to politely delay conversations. The onslaught of telemarketers make it understandable, if not necessary, to screen our phone calls. For many of us, voice-mail has become the “in-box” that collects our phone conversations until we have time to reply to them. The cellular phone has compensated for our wandering ways, but it has maintained the delaying controls of voice-mail and caller ID.

As businesses adopted the internet into the office, e-mail became the end-run around the phone and voice-mail. It was once the norm to read e-mail as soon as it popped up in your e-mail box. Soon, changes in business, society and technology introduced delays to this method of communication too. E-mail, a useful tool on the desktop was useless on the road or at home. The wireless industry extended the reach of e-mail to your wireless phone or PDA, but even with this enhanced availability, spam has made e-mail as frustrating as your home phone at dinner time.

Phones and e-mail will always have there place as communications tools. Their ability to provide instant communication seems to have passed.

Don’t worry, as with any technology, the children shall lead the way. Today’s “instant” communication technology is Instant Messaging (IM), and it is a big hit with the “tweens” and teens. In fact, it is this demographic that accounts for the vast majority of Instant Messages sent worldwide. So, why should you care about the latest teen craze when you have work to do? The reason is all in the name: Instant Messaging (IM). It seems, at least for now, that IM really is instant.

Remember that high school and college aren’t that different from today’s business environment. They have classes, you have meetings. You both have extra-curricular activities, be they a softball team or association. And both of you need to find time for friends and family. The common denominator is too much to do in too little time. With the demise of the phone and e-mail as instant communication tools, kids have discovered that IM fits the bill at home and away. In fact, many teens spend more time IMing on their wireless phones than they do talking on them.

How can you take advantage of Instant Messaging? Start with kids. If you have “tweens” or teens of your own, or students you coach or volunteer with, get their IM names and start to Instant Message. You will be amazed at the response you will get. That teenager who would rather go to the dentist than answer a phone call from a parent, will actually converse with you via IM. Where a phone call with the parents in front of friends is sooo obvious and embarrassing, IM is private. Your teen can now IM back and forth with mom or dad, and the friends are none the wiser. The other key is the “instant” aspect. The materials they needed for their first hour project will escape their memory before lunch. With IM, they can inform mom or dad of the needed materials immediately after class and still forget about them by lunch. Although now, they will rest assured in the knowledge that someone will remember for them.

Instant Messaging does have its business benefits as well. When you are looking for a quick answer to a question, the last thing you want is to have your message filed away in voice-mail or behind a plethora of Prozac ads. Even if you simply need a “yes” or a “no” from a colleague at another office, today’s communication isn’t always instant. Chances are that the sooner you need an answer, the longer it will take to get it. Instant Messaging is a great tool to address these types of situations.

You may see IM as a kid’s craze, but the transistors in my pocket radio eventually revolutionized computing. This generations Instant Messaging may actually be the “instant” communication that stays instant. If you don’t believe me, IM one of tomorrow’s communications managers.

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