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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Instant Messaging in the workplace. Theory and practice: the great divide

I was getting ready for a class on virtual communication and preparing materials on the importance of IM in today’s virtual workplaces and I was trying to find a resource books on professional communication to include in my further reading list. I have consulted the textbooks I had available in my office only to find that the guidance they give is misleading, over-generalised and it seems like it has nothing to do with the actual practice of using IM in the workplace. I had a feeling that the authors of these publications have never actually taken part or seen IM interactions from real workplaces. It seemed like, I have, yet again, come across the great divide between theory and practice in professional communication.

The Effective communication for colleges, for instance, advises us to 

“Use appropriate vocabulary and language mechanics... Sloppy messages and weak language skills distract receivers, diminish clarity, and ultimately reflect poorly on the sender. Do not damage your professional reputation with style, grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary errors." (p. 115)

Seems like they are advising students to adopt a style but forget to say what constitutes that style exactly. What sort of language skills are they referring to? What do they consider appropriate?

For IM, the books tells us to 
"Be brief and send quick, short messages"
"Be professional" - defining professionality as sending only  proofread messages, and
"Avoid multitasking" - I'll come back to this one later.

Successful writing at work wasn’t of more help, either. The book advises me to only write about one topic at a time and not to include different topics in one IM exchange (p. 86). Well, anyone who has ever used online chatting knows that this is a rather hard thing to do, so again, I am not sure how the author expects me to achieve this. 

Then they say: Avoid unfamiliar abbreviations. As in an e-mail, commonly understood abbreviations such as “FYI” or “ASAP” are fine—even encouraged—in IMs. But avoid “textspeak.”

I like this one a lot, because -again- this piece of guidance leaves more questions open than gives actual information. Who decides which abbreviations are commonly understood? Why is FYI OK to use, but NP is not?

And of course the re-occurring: Be professional! Good thing is that Successful writing gives a bit more guidance as to what it means to be professional: Never send personal messages, tell jokes, spread office gossip, or attack a co-worker or boss in an IM.

Guffey's Essentials of Business Communication has similar things to say: Be brief and avoid chitchat, beware of jargon, slang and abbreviations, and employ proper grammar and proofread your messages.

Having read thousand and thousands of lines of IM interactions from a variety of settings, I can say that NONE of the guidelines above would actually be helpful in real life. Here's why: 

  • There are no universal rules for IM usage in the world of work, so there is no point in trying to make some up... There is nothing wrong with “textspeak”, it’s fine to use abbreviations, emoticons, and as a matter of fact, anything, as long as they serve to convey our intended meaning. Even ALL CAPS are FINE (and they don’t always denote shouting).
  • IM is one of the most important communication tools for people who work in distributed work teams. So “corridor talk” or “watercooler talk”, joking, teasing, small talk should not be banished, but quite the contrary. They should be encouraged, as -just like in physical offices- it is through these interactions that people create and maintain good and collegial relationships.
  • People do multitask. They are engaged in multiple conversations, or they work on something while chatting to a colleague. This is the nature of working virtually, so you can't not do it. What you can do, however, is learn how to maintain several threads, how to keep track to your conversations, and generally, how to use IM  in the specific environment you are in.
  • The key terms are not defined. When books talk about appropriate style, they should be specific. What does appropriate IM style mean? What is sloppiness? What is professionalism? If the authors find it hard to define these terms, it is perhaps because they ARE hard to define. These aspects depend greatly on contextual factors -  is IM intended to be external or internal only, what are the communication norms of the actual team, are there any discussed or perhaps unsaid rules of communication,  what is the purpose of the interaction, what is the relationship between the colleagues, how urgent is the task, and so on. 

Students should be taught to be flexible and competent communicators in any situation, including IM, and the only way of achieving this is  by showing them how language and discourse works in its closer and wider context of use. Prescriptivism and vague guidelines simply won't do the trick.

The books: 

Brantley, C. P., & Miller, M. G. (2007). Effective communication for colleges. Canada: South-Western Publishing.
Guffey, M. E. (2010). Essentials of business communication (8th ed.) Cengage Learning.
Kolin, P. C. (2012). Successful writing at work (3rd concise edition ed.) Wadsworth Cengage.


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