Professional Group Chat: An Oxymoron

Besides the ability to promote the event, Internet chat is an awkward tool for business.

I can’t think of a dumber method of trying to communicate serious business information than Internet chat. Let’s take the worst thing about e-mail – typing – and the worst thing about the telephone – synchronicity – and put them together in one agonizingly slow collaboration technique.

Yes, chat is the application that gets all the attention on AOL. Yes, teenagers who could not otherwise be separated from their telephones have flocked to chat, but there’s little place in business for chat.

My flight schedule being what it is, I have finally managed to read the November 3rd issue of Computerworld, wherein a cover-page story heralds the great potential for this misguided tool, “because it lets people communicate in real time.”  That’s what the telephone is all about.

The worst thing about the phone is that it demands people to be chronologically co-located. Voice-mail is only good for short bursts and horrible to sift trough. Ask anybody who gets more than a dozen at a time. The best thing about the phone is that two or more people can communicate in real time. People can talk much faster than they can type. If you had to sit and watch me type this missive, including all the backspaces and deleted sentences, you’d be clicking over to the Dilbert Zone in no time.

I have been “interviewed” on CompuServe and AOL and spent an agonizing hour each time trying to be as intellectually cogent and as typographically accurate as humanly possible. The disjointedness of my statements and the participant’s questions and comments was nothing less than disorienting. And while the interviewers got us off to rollicking beginnings, the sessions had no structure – no middle and certainly no end. The best communications that came out of those forays into the typewriter-of-the-absurd were the questions that came in days later from people who had read through the transcripts.

The best thing about e-mail, indeed about newsgroups, lists and the World Wide Web as well, is that they are asynchronous. You need not be present to win. This afternoon I was asked if I’d like to host a weekly radio talk show about the Internet. I was flattered. I was also realistic. No, I wasn’t worried about being confused with another radio Stern(e), I just couldn’t commit to being by the telephone at a particular time on a specific day of the week, every week.

Chat is amusing. Chat is fun. Chat is a cute parlor game and great for virtually meeting people pretending to be something else. But for the serious, timely, efficient communication of professional information, it belongs in the same bag of tricks as chain letters, pneumatic tubes and walkie-talkies where you have to end each communiquè with, “Over!”

You want  your staff to be able to learn from your corporate leaders in an arena where they can ask questions? Have the expert post an article and give people a week to send in questions. And make the muckie-muck reply twice a day. Want the interactivity punched up to a higher level of collaboration? Try the good old telephone conference call.