Why Instant Messaging is Better for Collaboration than Email


We’ve wondered before whether email is good enough as a collaboration tool. What about instant messaging, like Google Talk or AIM? A study out of Taiwan that Lifehacker turned us on to suggests that IM might be better than email for generating ideas. In a comparison of teams using IM versus teams using email, the IM teams generated on average one more idea than the email teams.

How might IM work better than email for collaborative work–especially work focused on generating breakthrough ideas?

I’ve put together some ideas on how IM might be better for group work than email… tell us what you think.

IM doesn’t allow for overthinking and overjudging of ideas–it’s too fast. In a quick IM interchange you might share an idea that wouldn’t make it through your filters during a session with the email compose window. We all know the conventional wisdom that in brainstorming you should share any idea, no matter how crazy it sounds. Why? Because even if it turns out to be dumb as heck, it might spark another, better idea. The quickness and casual informality of instant messaging relative to email helps us bypass our inner critic and get more ideas out.

In her book On Becoming an Artist, psychologist Ellen Langer writes about research that shows that constant evaluation and comparing ourselves to others can stifle our creativity. In a work environment, if our ideas are exposed to too many others too early on–as when you know everyone’s watching via “cc” and “reply all,” we’ll be less likely to share the most outrageous ones, the ones that could be just the breakthrough the team needs. In a comparatively sheltered IM exchange, we can test out ideas with less fear of judgment and criticism.

IM avoids email-induced “cc-itus.” The causes of and problems with cc’ing the world on your email are described in this list of seven productivity tips:

Aaaah, ‘cc-itus’, also known as ‘cover-your-arse’ syndrome, and its close relative ‘reply-all-itus’ are becoming the bane of many an email system. Performance review systems should be credited with most of the blame – the need to be visible in order to be measured against your peers combined with the need to share blame if you fail (‘but I copied you on that email and you never said I shouldn’t do it…’) has led to the average business person spending 1.5 hrs each day processing email.

In instant messaging, the default mode is one-to-one, not one-to-many. It’s not about covering your butt or showing how much you know, but getting to the point. With email it’s all too easy to add yet another person to the conversation, and in the process drag down productivity while decreasing people’s willingness to share ideas.

IM reduces chances of misunderstanding. One of the main problems of email back and forths is the potential for chugging off on the wrong track because you don’t get immediate feedback. Immediate, brief responses in IM keep conversations on track and misunderstandings to a minimum.

The wisdom of IM. Are you familiar with James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds? He didn’t mean that if you get a bunch of people together you’ll get smarter stuff. No, what he meant was that if you aggregate individual decisions and ideas, you’ll get better results. The key is that individuals need space to have their own independent thoughts.

Psychologists have found that people working in groups suffer consistently from problems like groupthink (coming to a false consensus because of social pressures to be agreeable and to respect dominant members of the group) and social loafing (assuming someone else is doing the work so you can take it easy)–see The Idiocy of Crowds if you want more on that.

How might the wisdom of crowds show up in IM versus email? IM, because it’s mainly one-to-one and brief, doesn’t create an environment that encourages groupthink and social loafing. On IM, you’re mostly left with your own ideas–with a few inputs from your buddy that ideally will be sparks and not dampers to the further fire of ideas. On IM, you can’t assume someone else is doing the work, because you won’t see long dissertations on how this or that should be done.

IM flattens the hierarchy. Because email is one-to-many and always suggests the possibility of escalation up the management chain or cover your behind or reply to everyone in the whole darn world, you have to keep your place in any org hierarchy when you use it. Instant messaging, on the other hand, suggests a person-to-person interaction more than a underling-to-VIP or a me-versus-my-nemesis exchange.

IM just feels more human. Is that more productive or not? In terms of generating ideas, less social posturing and kowtowing probably means people feel comfortable offering more ideas, less anxiety and stress from wherever you exist in the hierarchy, and better productivity.

IM isn’t perfect. It can be abused, and it comes with its own complex undocumented etiquette and expectations. Email probably works better in some situations, like when you need to get agreement among a large group of people on a very complex topic. Or maybe you need a wiki for that.

What do you think? Is IM or email better for collaboration, especially creative collaboration and generating breakthrough ideas?



Some great points here, that got me thinking. But a team that can gather around a single board, face to face, are always going to be at an advantage (for reasons you just inspired me to blog about :) ), but im should always beat email, because of the lower latency (time from sending to receiving). IM with shared workspace and webcams would be great!

Jeff Hester

Of course IM is better — it’s (primarily) synchronous, real-time communcation. You can bounce ideas off each other without overanalyzing (the paralysis of analysis).

As for keeping a record, as pointed out by others, most IM programs allow you to save a log of all chats. Of them all, I like Google Talk best, as it saves them in my Gmail inbox (searchable right along with my email). Also, Google Desktop search has optional extensions that allow it to index chat logs, so you can search right from there.

Martin Wells

With Tangler we’ve found the addition of topics and groups in a real-time messaging system generates very high levels of interaction. People want real-time notification, but doing that on a scale of hundreds or thousands is a difficult problem to solve – something we’re still working on.

There’s also a big difference between chat and discussion. Chat is time-dependent — the timing of the interaction changes the nature of what’s said. That gives you more of a “hi, are you there?” style. Since we introduced persistence and topics we’ve noticed a decline in this to be more like discussion. So, I think the lines between IM and email is getting blurry, and that’ll only accelerate.

Mick Liubinskas

Mick from Tangler here. This is right on topic for us. We’re trying to create a tool that will make some of you happy. Not a collaboration killer, but perfect for some uses.

And this is the challenge, or maybe the opportunity. Even for a an individual there is many ways that they should be collaborating to get the right outcome. Sometimes it’s email, when you want to collect your thoughts and think it through. Sometimes it’s IM when you are ‘whiteboarding’ and just throwing things around. Sometimes it’s one on one and sometimes it’s a room of 20. I wouldn’t go a day without collaborating in more then 5 ways, and that’s how it should be.

The other challenge is that each person has preferences. Maybe I’m an email guy and IM freaks me out. Maybe email is boring and slow. How do these two collaborate? You’ve got to be considerate of that especially in teams that bleed outside the techniclined crowd.

Tangler would best be described as (becoming) a combination of forums and IM. It’s in beta right now and if anyone is open to giving us feedback I’d be happy to give you an invite. gotgroup a t tangler .do.t. com If you feel this is off topic or spam, just del.


P.S. (It would also appear that blog comments are sometimes good for collaboration )


My wife works for an investment bank who uses IM all the time to communicate locally and globally; it works definately for them, better than email which as become more the ‘official’ transport for message.

Stephan Voigt, Mindquarry Blog

I think IM just happens. But as mentioned in the article and the comments, it’s sometimes a very inordinate communication. You need much discipline to communicate clearly and you need to keep the communication minutes in most cases. (like I said in our Mindquarry blog article) At least you still need it all: IM & mail & wiki & Fileserver to have a powerful collaboration environment.


Using IM in business is a great tool. Its short and to the point. If you need a task done across the office just shoot an IM. A phone call takes too long with hellos and goodbyes and an email is just absurd. IM, the quick way to communicate.


Anne Zelenka

Christian – absolutely I will think of a followup article. You guys have given me great content! The drawbacks/abuses of IM–possibilities for better collaboration tools–how to make brainstorming work–all of these will make for interesting WWD discussions in the future.

Keep the ideas and feedback coming. Thanks!


If you are using a conventional text IM for brainstorming amongst proefessional colleagues you shouldn’t have to waste time and energy worrying about what BRB* and LMAO* mean or which smiley face to use. Leave that to the social networks and teeny-boppers.

I agree with ‘Island in the Net’ that IM is “intrusive and a bloody waste of time” but email doesn’t do it either. You need to be able to have a conversation to collaborate. We took IM up a few degrees and built an online conversation tool that uses real time audio/video. It’s the next best thing to being there. You can also take notes right in the app and copies of any text are emailed to participants automatically. But we aren’t done. It still isn’t ideal for collaborating. So I ‘collaborated’ with Vyew.com and Gatherplace.com (no financial gain for me Vyew is FREE & the other isn’t mine) and our app can be grafted seemlessly to either one. NOW we are talking collaboration tool! Whiteboards, doc & file sharing, and perpetual meeting rooms so you can leave it open after a session and members can come back to review, add or see new material. This is online collaboration. Comparing email & IM as collaboration tools is like comparing a steam roller with a lawn tractor to run the Indy 500 – they’ll get the job done but what the heck are you thinking?!

Oh, and by the way, before you think the above is too complicated to put together; think again my friends. NO DOWNLOADING needed for either collab. tool, nor for our a/v chat. Just point, click and use. That’s why I thought I’d chime in here.

Perhaps Anne will consider a follow-up article! Best of success to all.

Ronnie Ann

Generally I feel a lot like Island in the Net about IMs – they can be intrusive and rather than capturing a moment, they often force a quick reply that misses that golden nugget of an idea. That said…I agree that it’s better than e-mail for encouraging hierarchy-proof exchanges. But c’mon…if you want to encourage great brainstorming, either do as BIZCOACH suggests and set a time when people can free their schedules and really let the ideas fly or…dare I suggest…talk to the person one-on-one. It’s true the anonymity of IMs or e-mails sometimes encourages people to loosen up, but getting used to one-on-one exchanges in the flesh or at least on the phone can be really useful. Once that one-on-one freedom to be stupid is unleashed, than IMs are a fine condiment – but please…not the whole meal ! Ronnie Ann


I think Backpackit, combined with phone calls, allows better collaboration than email or IM. IM often degenerates into a rain of smileys and “ummmm….” And no, I have no affiliation with them.

Om Malik

I think IM has its uses but it can get quite distracting and you are constantly trying to restrict access as to the number of people who can reach you instantly.

I think in the writing business it is basically an annoyance. people have stopped following the IM etiquette and just send a message whenever they want.

I think campfire is a less distracting option, or using the IRC channel is something folks should consider.


While IM is a great way to get instant feedback, it can, and often does, quite easily get out of control.

There are many people who fail to respect the status messages (busy, working on a project, on the phone, etc.) and, as a result, make IM more of a distraction than anything else. I frequently find myself turning it off to avoid all the interruptions.

Used in the context of this blog — for brainstorming — I would set it up as a meeting: “from 10 – 11am, brainstorming” to allow for the free flow of ideas and still contain the time.

The flexibility is great…it’s more self-control that is sometimes needed.


WE use MSN IM at work for quick answers to questions but it is not an “official” channel for organizational decision making. Even with IM history it would need to be deepened to allow for searching and archiving allowed users to organize their histories.

I enjoy the flexibility of IMing but I also love to cover my ass with emailing!

Island in the Net

I see IM as intrusive and a bloody waste of time. The article only hints at the problems with IM.

“It can be abused, and it comes with its own complex undocumented etiquette and expectations.”

Even if I set my IM status to “Busy” or “On the phone” I will still get messages because the sender assumes that I am just filtering my communications.

I hate IM for anything other than a quick chat with a close friend.


I agree that IMing is generally a faster and more convenient way to communicate than email. Though sometimes I get carried away and spend way too much time than actually needed. Which is why I use email quite a lot too. So you just get to the point, full stop.


No Shit?

Seriously, of course IM is a better collaboration tool. It’s actually happening in real time with everybody present. What’s the big deal?

Michele: You do have a record since chat history is saved in most IM programs.

Judi Sohn

Depends on the application you use for IMs, Michele. Trillian (and Adium, I think) saves IM history by default and has a nice search interface.


The one big downside for me is that with IM I don’t have a record and if I’m asked to do a big list of things, I sometimes forget something, or I don’t have a record of details. The way around this is to save IMs, but they’re not easy to search like email is.

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