Over here in IBM-land we’re big users of instant messaging. The Sametime solution has a daily average concurrent connection statistic that is bigger than most companies and even some small nations… 170,000 people logged on.

Sametime business cardYesterday my frolleague Mark Holmes and I had a telephone conversation… imagine that. Yes, we do use the phone sometimes and actually many Sametime conversations consist of “hi, can I call you?”. This one started off with “can you talk?” which I responded to predictably with “yes, I’ve been able to since I was two”. Most amusing of course, and as we enjoyed the joke we took a temporary diversion onto the subject of instant messaging etiquette. I don’t recall IBM ever publishing guidelines on usage of instant messaging – maybe there is somewhere, but I pledged to have a quick dip into the world of the Interweb to see what advice was out there.

The first best practise I came across was entitled ‘knock before you enter’ and suggested that instant messaging conversations should start with “can you chat?” or “are you available?” – yes, let’s all be nice. So, first one I found and I 90% disagree with it… and actually I told some colleagues about this one earlier in the week. I suggested that people shouldn’t Sametime me with “hi Darren” and then wait for me to reply before they carry on – if you have a question, just get on with it. The main reason was that I was on a conference call for an hour – and was ignoring Sametime – twelve Sametime messages arrived and over half just said “hi” or “hi Darren”. The others I was able to deal with quickly, but for those who’d said “hi” I had to respond to say I was now available and then wait for them to type in the question… which causes delays.

Some other suggestions on that page are “be brief” and “watch what you write”. Not unlike e-mails then. And finally this one… “don’t use the instant messaging program to spy on your friends by going online under a secret screen name”. I think I’d put this one down as a reason to use an enterprise-grade real-time collaboration solution rather than the public networks.

Further down the search results I came across the hallowed pages of renowned blogger Stowe Boyd, who advises “never check whether a person has time to chat.. if he’s online and reachable, he’s all yours”. Yes, I agree. But by the time I reached “send large files without asking whether it’s okay… you know better than anyone what people need… don’t have any qualms about using up other people’s download bandwidth and hard drive space” I got the impression this wasn’t altogether serious, and looking back at the top of the page noticed that it was a tongue-in-cheek list lifted from How to Annoy People Using Instant Messaging.

The search ran out of steam quickly – loads of results but they all basically said the same obvious things. I think my favourite has to be “if you’re going to ask questions at least make some attempt to find the answers for yourself first”. Oh yes, oohhhh yes. But this also applies to e-mails or phone calls.

I’ll end with my pet peeves…

  1. Don’t start your instant message with “I know you’re busy but…”. Whether you acknowledge I’m busy or not, you’re still going to interupt me and ask a question, so let’s dispense with the false empathy. Get on with the issue.
  2. Someone asks a question and I say “hang on a minute, let me look for something” – so I leave switch to a browser or Notes and start looking, and then see the instant message window flashing because the other person has said something else. So now I break off from searching to go back to look at what they’ve said. And 99% of the time it’s “thanks”.

Despite venting a little anger, I love Sametime – you have to balance up the occasional interuptions with the incredible productivity benefits of being able to quickly reach people around the globe – they may be working from home, logged on via a mobile device or even out of hours. And of course, you can always go into Do Not Disturb mode.