E-mail and instant messaging
E-mail is perhaps the best productivity tool ever invented for computers and business use, if used properly. Instant messaging is right behind e-mail as a business tool, with the same caveats. Used properly, they're wonderful tools; used improperly, and they're (a) ineffective forms of communications and (b) time-wasters.
E-mail is a great way to pass routine messages. It is much easier to e-mail a "While you were out" message than to write it down and tape it to a co-worker's door.
E-mail is a great way to follow up a voice conversation. You can assure in writing that you and the person you were talking to understand each other and agree about the task to accomplish.
However, e-mail is a lousy method of conversation. I type over 80 wpm, including all of the symbols. However, I talk much faster than I type, without rushing. In spite of this, I can often accomplish more in a five-minute conversation with a customer or vendor than I can with days of e-mail correspondence. When you talk to someone, you are paying attention to the issue at hand, as opposed to the 50 other issues in your Inbox. You can discuss the situation, trade ideas, critique each other, and complete the mission now.
If your company provides support by e-mail only, you are asking for trouble. More specifically, you are asking to give your customers away. All things being equal, I will choose the company with live human support available. For that matter, live human support is worth a premium to me. This is true for most other people as well. That's why our phone number is right on the Openesque home page where people can easily find it.
Pick up the phone, or go visit the person — in person. Follow up with an e-mail. Collect income. Repeat.
Mailing lists are not an exception to this rule. They can be useful to pose a problem and find a solution. More often than not, though, they become a "chat session" where people are arguing about the relative merits or or problems with a solution. This can sometimes be informative; but more often than not, it's a complete waste of time.
This is another one of those technologies that can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. Workgroup instant messaging can be a very productivity-enhancing tool. This is an ideal technology for passing messages and notes that aren't time-critical to one another. It's faster than e-mail if you can just type a short message without bothering to address it, knowing that all in your group will see it. This is also a good thing in that it keeps your group better connected; everyone can see what's going on. If your group is not physically close, instant messaging is the next best thing.
Although they are universally detested, and often rightly so, an office divided into several short-walled cubicles can be a highly productive environment. Here, your "instant messaging" is simply talking over the wall. If your group is enclosed in an office such that you don't bother other people not in your group, this can be a highly effective way to work. There is no environment more stifling to creativity and productivity for most people than a dead-quiet room. Combine this with a small conference room where group members can have either privacy or a face-to-face meeting, and you have a great environment to work in. I say this from personal experience.
For a telecommuting workgroup, instant messaging is a virtually indispensible tool. If you have a telecommuting workgroup, you should have an instant messaging system. We generally use good old IRC (on a private server using secure connections); the software is free (although we'll charge you to set it up,) and does the job satisfactorily. Many people have already used IRC in the past. If they've used any instant messaging system, IRC is easy enough to learn how to use.
As with e-mail, the danger here is that it stops being a messaging system and becomes a chat system. "Instant messaging" and "chat" are fundamentally the same technology; the only difference is in how you use it.
Openesque runs a private IRC server for its employees and associates. I still have to be careful to not let IRC turn into a time-sucker. However, a little distraction is often a good thing.