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Presence, the next life changer

February 15, 2011

This article was originally published on the Boostzone Intitute’s blog in October 2009.

When the Internet started in the 80’s, globalization was unheard of and those working in international organizations were not “connected” across frontiers and seas. Open questions – fewer at that time – were solved by asking nearby in the same office, floor, building or restaurant. Twenty years later, technology has made everything faster and everyone closer; to keep a business among the leaders, collaboration is a must, real time, across distance and frontiers.

Instant messaging (IM) arrived in the early 90’s as an engineer’s gadget, and was rapidly adopted as a business tool. Simple, practical, ergonomic, cheap, it allows us to see who is ‘on’ and pass short messages that don’t need the formality of an email nor the interruption of a phone call. You may use AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Jabber, MSN Messenger, Office Live Messenger, Reuters Messaging, Sametime, Skype, Yahoo Messenger or many others including in-house versions, or a mix of those through aggregators such as Pidgin or Trillian. You will need to install the client and to ask your contacts to connect (except in some companies, where the directory is pre-declared in the IM server). It is easy to use, and carries very few constraints: no need to click/open/read/answer/proofread/send/archive, no need to search for a phone number in a directory, no need to stop everything else and concentrate, you have your contacts at your fingertips.

Here are some common pros and cons (randomly organized):

Pros Cons
Very practical, easy to use
A great tool in  geographically dispersed teams
For informal quick Q&A, frees you from email and/or phone
Allows multitasking
Allows you to check info on a call/in a meeting (virtual-whispering)
Boosts efficiency, cuts costs
A great collaboration tool, and allows you to network in an easier way than phone or mail, or even voicemail
Perceived by some as a waste of time, or a time consuming distraction
Management concerns on the need to monitor and archive conversations (with the corollary of privacy concerns)
Legal concerns in regulated markets (trading etc.)
Fancy pop-up opening during exec presentation is generally ill thought  of
Not for  long complex messages
You rarely end-up with o single tool – more often with 2 or 3

Presence everywhere

In 2005/2006, as IM reached maturity, security questions came to the foreground; they are now mostly under control thanks to awareness training (security risks mostly come with connecting to strangers), acceptable use policies (AUPs), and in-house IM servers with security features (encryption, authentication, DLP[i], etc…) where necessary.

More recently, most social networks (including in the in-company versions we categorize under the label Enterprise 2.0) have added an IM feature. You can also try Mobile IM (MIM) by installing the client on your Smartphone – a step beyond SMS and MMS which it is expected to replace in 2011[ii] – it is still a bit impractical and monopolistic, but expected to improve quickly.

In fact, the advent of social networking seems to have slowed the growth of IM as a standalone service for individual users. Not yet the case in corporations, though a trend to expect as Enterprise 2.0 platforms spread.

Changing group dynamics

Just like many other technology tools, IM makes collaboration practical and transversal to the organization (and as such, is somehow unsuitable for command & control organizations). It also carries more spontaneity than most other tech-tools, hence is seen as less mechanical, more ‘human’, strengthening ties. It usually denotes autonomous employees: an example I like is self-organizing support teams, who use IM to check who is on shift and hand over problems quickly to the right expert[iii]. It also allows questioning of a variety of sources at the same time, and is seen as a true power in troubleshooting problems.

Because it is easy, and because it can be kept short and simple, some users forget about meeting face to face IRL (in real life), even when sitting just a door away. And, just like for email, each has her/his own pace, and addicts run the risk of harassing more tentative users. Yet, advantages seem still more important than burdens – one of the testimonies I received was even more enthusiastic: “I can work without mail, I can’t live without IM”.

Tops collaboration tools

Forrester recently ran a survey for information workers in the US[iv]: surprisingly, only 26% of ‘information workers’ use Instant Messaging – one would have expected more, as this kind of service is now mature.

Instant Messaging tops collaboration tools

The other interesting finding is that Instant Messaging comes first  of all collaborative tools, followed by web conferencing (used by 24%), Team document-sharing site (19%), Social network sites (12%) and Videoconferencing (8%). It is definitely a main tool to facilitate the rise of corporate collaboration.

If your corporation is not yet there, should it go now? Probably yes, unless you are all in the same place, all time, with a super coffee machine, and don’t need any informal external stakeholder contact.

Since the application seems pretty mature, what’s next?




How will business IM morph?

  • Presence everywhere, with Mobile IM. Mentioned above, this is seen as the replacement for SMS/MMS in the next few years, more or less connected with online platforms.
  • Adding features. As a standalone tool, Skype seems today to be ahead with chatroom on demand, voice, video, video-conferencing, and any kind of mix you want. Plus clients for Smarphones. Neither yet screen or application sharing nor enterprise management support, but one can hope for it.
  • Replacing phone. Skype has a phone-like set, and VoIP service and hardware providers (i.e. the whole telephone market) are all paying attention to this area … though not yet clear if it will lead to something
  • Integrating in collaborative platforms. Already started, most social networking platforms, and especially in-company ones, now propose the same type of services, interconnected with many other collaborative tools.
  • Geolocalization. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to see a demo of AkaAki[v], a mobile social networking service from Berlin. It adds geo-localization and diverse profile and history features, allowing people to meet when they roam nearby each other, whether they know themselves (it alerts you) or not (it compares profiles, common friends etc. to propose people you should meet, or you can search for someone you see around – and if she/he is registered, her/his profile will give you chat subjects…). It uses GPS, Bluetooth and antenna recognition to map Smartphones and proposes to their owners a view of the neighborhoods. Beyond the privacy debate it generated, and assuming necessary ethic and safeguards will be developed, the idea of geolocalization is quite appealing: imagine entering in a crowded meeting room and immediately having the exact list of participants, imagine in a conference checking who you can or should meet around you, imagine while travelling your Smartphone lets you know that several of your workmates or partners are around…
  • Bridging/federation. No lead there, but a need : those users working with several tools still need an efficient , agnostic and user-friendly aggregator …
  • Interactivity. Out of the Cloud comes … GoogleWave, beta launched a few weeks ago, aiming further at real time live collaboration, mixing presence, social networking, email, … and many other things. Google is playing an ambitious endeavor – betting users will understand the purpose of this crossbreed tool, and will like the practical use. In any case, we can be sure that this innovation will influence corporate collaboration behaviors and tools – continuing on web 2.0 startups fate since almost a decade now.

How would you like these tools to work, in the future?

[i] DLP : Data Loss Prevention software
[ii] Mobile messaging futures 2007-2012 –
[iii] Question thread asked in LinkedIn (see
[iv] See Forrester report,7211,55268,00.html
[v] AkaAki was demonstrated at the 2009 NetExplorateur

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