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?


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