Editor’s note: Russ McGuire is the online director of Business Reform Magazine. Each issue of Business Reform features practical advice on operating successfully in business while glorifying God.

The Internet has clearly revolutionized how people can stay connected to each other and to information. For businesses, a critical challenge is figuring out how to make this a blessing rather than a curse. One of the least appreciated tools offering a great benefit for distributed businesses is instant messaging.

Business Reform is a distributed organization. Although fairly small in number, our staff operate in four states. About half of our team works out of their home offices. My nearest co-worker is nearly 800 miles away (792.5 miles according to ZipMath). You’d think that this would make it hard to stay connected and operating efficiently. Thankfully, instant messaging (or IM) has solved many of these challenges.

Instant messaging is a way to instantly send messages to friends and co-workers. Although there are a number of different IM networks, each with its own specific quirks, in general instant messaging works in a very intuitive way. The hardest part is finding out the IM addresses for all the folks with whom you want to “talk.” This is similar to getting their phone numbers or e-mail addresses for your rolodex, but unfortunately, most people don’t yet publish their IM address on their business cards. Once you have someone’s address (or “screen name” or “handle” or “alias” or “id” – depending on the IM network) you can add them to your “buddy list”. This buddy list is kept in a small window that you can keep open on your computer. By having the IM software running and this window open, your co-workers know that you’re available to chat and you can quickly see which of your co-workers are available.

The analogy that works best for me is a hall of offices. I can scan my buddy list even easier than I could walk down a hall of offices. I can easily see who is in their office and available to answer my question. If I don’t want to be disturbed, but I want to keep my buddy list open (so I can disturb others…) I can hang out a “do not disturb” sign – maybe a note that says “I’m working on my Tools and Toys column – leave me alone.” Anyone can see that I’m unavailable just by glancing at their buddy list, and if they want to know why, they can read the note.

But at a certain point, all analogies break down. The factor that makes IM a huge productivity enhancer (unlike most of what the Internet has brought to our desktop) is the fact that I can now multi-task. There have been times when I’ve been on a conference call while carrying on two or three IM conversations. You could never accomplish that in the physical world, unless maybe you’re ambidextrous and know sign language!

In fact, conference calls are a great time to use instant messaging. Imagine this scenario – you’ve set up a call with your most important client, Sally. She’s upset, but you can’t figure out exactly why, so you have Joe, your head of sales, Jim, your head of operations, and Bob, your head of distribution on the call. Each of you is in a different location.

    Sally starts the call: “I’ve been waiting four months for you to deliver on what you promised.”
  • You IM Bob: “Bob – what have we failed to deliver?”
  • Bob responds: “I haven’t a clue.”
  • You virtually turn to Joe: “Joe – what did you promise her?”
  • Joe shoots back: “I haven’t talked to her company for nearly a year, since we closed the initial deal.”
  • Finally Jim chimes in: “Wait a minute, did anyone ever follow-up to clarify their request to change the color of the doors?”

In this scenario, you’re clearly focused on addressing your client’s real issue, however, as an organization you are not operating at peak performance levels, but by using a tool like instant messaging, you can quickly share information and get to the root issues without looking like complete fools in front of this important client.

There are clear challenges to implementing IM today. The largest is interoperability. AOL operates two separate major IM networks, and Yahoo and Microsoft each have their own major networks. None of these work with each other – yet. Imagine if you couldn’t call a Verizon telephone customer unless you too were a Verizon customer. Or if you couldn’t send an e-mail to an AOL user unless you were an AOL user too. Historically, of course, that’s exactly how it was when telephone networks and e-mail networks were each brand new. In time, this will get worked out.

In the meantime, you’ll probably want to settle on a single network and use it across the company. Since all of the networks are free to use, choosing one isn’t a financial decision. If some of your employees are already using one of the major networks, it probably makes sense to go with that one.

If you’re really adventurous, and if you’ve got folks across the company using different networks, you might try out something like gaim – instant messaging software that works across all of the major networks. But gaim, and other tools like it, is really a development project in the works. The gaim home page talks about tarballs and rpms and cvs and other geek speak. I needed to find and install something called GTK+ to get gaim to work on my computer. If this doesn’t scare you off, it’s a pretty handy way to stay connected with everyone, regardless of their IM network.

Another aspect of instant messaging to keep in mind is that all of the free networks I’ve mentioned are really consumer-class solutions. They aren’t secure and they aren’t necessarily reliable. I wouldn’t recommend using them to send confidential information and I wouldn’t count on them to be there for mission critical applications. A number of companies, including well known software vendors like IBM, are developing commercial-grade IM solutions. These certainly won’t be free, but someday you may find yourself relying on instant messaging enough that they will make sense for your company.

From the instant to the eternal

On the personal side, there are two networking-based solutions that I have really come to enjoy over the past few months. They both bring the Word of God to my desktop in the interrupt-driven manner that grabs my attention in the middle of my day and reminds me of where to turn for true wisdom. Although neither one should be considered a substitute for regular quality time spent in focused Bible study, they represent the kind of interruption from which each of us can benefit.

The first is a service of the International Bible Society. It’s called “Daily Manna from the Net”. Every day I get an e-mail message with a Bible passage from both the King James Version and the New International Version translations.

The second service is similar, but provides a reminder throughout the day of God’s truths. Heartlight provides a service which replaces the “wallpaper” on my computer screen with an attractive photo overlaid with a Bible verse or passage. Today’s verse is Psalm 143:1 over top of a picture of a beautiful waterfall.

Although these eternal messages are conceptually as far as you can get from the throw-away conversations I have every day in IM, the peace they promise can be just the firm foundation I need when I’m carrying on four simultaneous “conversations.”

Russ McGuire is Online Director for Business Reform. Prior to joining Business
Reform, Mr. McGuire spent over twenty years in technology industries, performing various roles from writing mission critical software for the nuclear power and defense industries to developing core business strategies in the telecom industry. Mr. McGuire is currently focused on helping businesspeople apply God’s eternal truths to their real-world business challenges through
Business Reform’s online services. He can be reached at [email protected].

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