Cisco’s instant messaging push overlooks pitfalls

You’d expect Cisco Systems to be at the edge when it comes to seeking ways to drive network investment and bandwidth utilization.

Rick Moran, Cisco’s vice-president of product and technology marketing, however, may be precariously close to falling off that edge. Among his observations made during a mid-November interview with Network World Canada was that instant messaging is now an important business productivity tool that is enriching how companies communicate.

Moran was asked to explain his assertion. Among his theories is that instant messaging is a useful application for locating an employee or colleague — that if that person happens to be logged onto a desktop or notebook computer, you might simply send an instant message to alert them to the fact that you’d like to correspond. Once located, you might then decide to call them on the telephone or author a more detailed e-mail message.

He further asserts that instant messaging is an effective collaboration tool within an office environment, where you might send questions or instructions to colleagues and then obtain a more instant response, without the need to actually converse in a face-to-face manner. The productivity gains are seen in the fact that a walk down an office hallway no longer becomes necessary.

But does text messaging really foster true collaboration, since it often gives people a reason not to interact in a direct way? While a text message may be faster, there’s often something lost in the translation or inferred in the correspondence. Does the business world really need another faceless type of correspondence, especially one as intrusive as instant messaging? It can be more like instant interruption, as pop-up messages appear regardless of what a person might happen to be doing. Yes, pop-up functions can be disabled and message “pings” can be filtered, but doing so invariably defeats the purpose of “instant.”

E-mail has efficiently revolutionized memo writing and information exchange, but the cost is seen in the serious personal relationship damage between some coworkers and colleagues. How many people overreact to the perceived tone and ambiguous meaning of messages sent via e-mail? It has contributed to a hypersensitive and sometimes hostile workplace. E-mail lets people respond in an impersonal and too immediate way.

The great value of direct conversation and confrontation is that these approaches encourage people to apply greater diplomacy and sensitivity — and to give more thought prior to actions.

It’s worth wondering whether network administrators and business professionals share Moran’s view of instant messaging’s usefulness as a productivity tool. In many workplaces that might allow it, instant messaging might more typically be seen as the virtual water cooler where company gossip, rather than business ideas, are exchanged.

As for the argument that instant messaging provides a more rapid way to track someone down, wouldn’t a wireless phone call or text message sent to some type of networked PDA be better options, since both are more portable communication devices more likely to be activated and available?

Instant messaging, from the perspective of a network administrator, must be a concern as an issue of controlling conversation traffic. Of greater worry might be security, where those who are inclined to do so can often easily find many ways of hacking into old conversation logs.

As a communications technology leader, Cisco is apt to see things in a different way from most companies. They experiment with technology more than most and see value in things that others may not — even where there may not be tremendous value. In the tightly controlled Cisco environment, the company may indeed be using instant messaging in a highly productive way and seeing in it the potential for something greater.

But it’s arguable at best to suggest that business sees the same thing.