by Elliott Masie | September 01, 1999
In recent weeks, technology companies have been in a heated battle over a phenomenon called instant messaging. More than 11 million people around the world have a form of instant messaging, which enables their PCs to detect when their friends or colleagues are online and available for a quick message or text chat.

Instant messaging will grow dramatically in the coming months, as people and organizations realize the limitations of e-mail. For all its wonders, e-mail has its disadvantages. We get way too much of it. We have little control over who gets to our inbox. (Take it from an avid e-mail user; I get as many as 900 to 1,500 messages a day.)

What teenagers, friends and now businesses have discovered is we can develop intentional communities of collaboration. Using America Online's, Yahoo's or Microsoft's messenger software, we can build a unique set of real-time gossamer threads between ourselves and those whom we select. For example, my online "buddy list" includes my meeting planner, my business partner, a couple of my colleagues, several peers and a business coach.

All participants have to agree to be in this private collaborative, and it really works. I quietly see when they are online. They check to see if it is a good time to call, or just send a one-sentence request or message of support. It works because it is instant, and it is consensual.

In another month, the convention services manager at a property where we are conducting a 2,500-person conference will join my buddy list. How might instant messaging change our dynamics?

  • We will have less phone tag and voice mail. When it is critical to talk to him, I can wait until he is at his desk, send him a quick instant message to see if it is the right time to talk and make the connection.
  • I, as the client, will have much greater confidence in my access to the hotel's organization. In reality, the hotel is now an icon on my desktop, ready to be accessed at any time.
  • It will change the demand-and-supply side of the relationship between suppliers and customers. We both will need to work to calibrate expectations accordingly.
    To use instant messaging, you need only have an Internet connection and software from AOL, Microsoft or Yahoo. Currently, these companies are debating the issue of compatibility among their systems, but this fight will only last a few more months. You can get information about instant messaging at, or messenger.

    Within a year or two, instant messaging could spread to wider use, as a contact- and community-building tool for attendees of conferences and meetings.

    It is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to new forms of digital collaboration. People want the ability to work together even though they are in different locations. As instant messaging evolves, expect capabilities like these.

  • You and three or four other people in different locations will be able to review a room layout simultaneously. As you talk over a conference call, each person will be able to move a shared cursor on the screen.
  • You will be able to detect when a customer or meeting attendee is looking at your Web page and send a personal message asking if he or she needs help.
  • These functionalities are now in use and will become widely available in the coming months. Instant messaging is not about driving us crazy with more demand; it is really about the ability to work and communicate with a select group of people in real time, over distance.

    ELLIOTT MASIE is president of the Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based Masie Center (, an international think tank focused on learning and technology.

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