Could Twitter replace business IM?

I’ve written before about utilising tools that are used daily on the Internet to create a new and knowledge focused Intranet with little cost to the business (have a look through the Knowledge Management category), and in that I’ve talked about the use of Instant Messaging. This has been something that has come up against resistance whenever it’s mentioned in a business context, so when I started using Twitter I saw answers to so many of the issues and negatives raised against IM in the workplace.

The Twitter model of messaging is one which would work superbly well in a business that is both scared of employees chatting the day away, and also of employees concerned about the instant intrusion of IM.

Previously I wrote about how Instant Messaging could be restricted by setting ensuring that employees could only contact those people who are members of teams to which they have been assigned – the team they work in, the project teams they are assigned to, and so on.

However this still leaves open the opportunity to sit and chat online, something which traditional business leaders are still very concerned about. It also scares network people with the idea of constant flowing network traffic, and to a degree it concerns some employees who are very concerned about the instantaneous demand of IM – after all sitting at your desk an IM pops up right in the center of your work and above everything you’re doing, it demands attention even more than the telephone.

Twitter is an IM with a difference though. It’s not so much about direct, instant communication, it’s more about sending status updates to different channels, where a channel might be a person, a team, or a project.

Twitter messages allow for the originating person to send a status update to a channel, usually their own, and whoever is subscribed to that channel can view the update. They can also send to another channel publicly or privately, publicly meaning that it is seen by all those reading both the sender and receivers channels and privately meaning that only the sender and receiver can read it.

Two of the strongest appeals of this system, and of clients that connect to it – e.g. Digsby, are that it does not demand your instant attention and interrupt your current work, and it restricts message to within channels that the user is engaged with – it’s not just a random chat system.

So imagine this in a little bit of a business context. Employees would have their own channel where they update their own working status, this would be referring to projects they are working on, etc. This could let others know where they are and what they’re currently engaged in, as well as giving updates on what they’ve just completed.

You can already see this replacing team meetings as the team leader, and other members of the team, could subscribe to the other team members channels and have instant updates of work in progress.

Imagine then that there are channels set up for projects, and the latest project I’m working on includes a few people from overseas in different timezones, and a few in the UK, perhaps on compressed hours or part time, or even just working on the project at different points in their working day.

How easy would it now be to keep up to date on a project if you subscribed to the project channel that all the other project team members were updating to and could read the updates as they happened but at your own pace?

A simple “@Application Upgrade 4” message would send my latest update through to the project channel where everyone could read it, messages such as “Testing complete and issue 5 is resolved”, “Latest use case documentation updated – replace old version” or “I’m available at 3pm for an hour of testing”. This could really start to eat away at the requirement for continual project update meetings, email chains, miscommunication and deliver some timely action.

Timelines are a useful feature which aren’t altogether properly implemented in Twitter as yet but could be hugely useful in a business environment for knowledge retention. Displaying the timeline for a project should list all the messages sent to the channel in ascending order of time, showing public and private messages and giving an instant history of the entire project. A user could simply select a person or channel and see a history of all the message interactions between them and the other person or channel including all the public messages.

This would be a much better tool to be used in businesses than a straight IM. From the employees perspective it’s quick, easy and device independant to send a message to another channel, be it project or person, and it also doesn’t instantly demand your attention above everything else you’re working on.

From a business perspective the tool doesn’t have the potential to waste so much employee time as a traditional IM system because the updates are being placed in channels for others to find and subscribe too, and when the choice is with the employee, they are more likely to subscribe only to relevant information.

It’s a slightly different view than just pushing out IM messages to anyone and the extra effort required for someone to find and subscribe to relevant sources of information would mean that this would be less likely to happen.

I could see a business type version of Twitter working well, however it would need to be a bit like a Google server and allow a business to purchase a full system which would just drop into their network and integrate with employee directories that they already have. It would also have to provide an administrative and reporting back end in order for technology teams to effectively manage and monitor it, and above all it would have to be secure.

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