If you thought instant messaging was just for teenagers and internet dating, think again. It is probably already in your company, whether you know it or not, and IT directors are facing the choice of stamping it out or embracing it and realising some long-term benefits.
Instant messaging is becoming increasingly popular, according to a survey carried out by Ovum and EEMA, an independent European e-business association. The average respondent had about 6,000 instant messaging users at the end of 2004, and expected this to rise to 11,300 users by the end of 2005. But how reliable are surveys such as these when dealing with technologies that are developing from the bottom up?
"Usually the IT administrator thinks there is no instant messaging within the network," says Joe Hildebrand, chief technical officer at instant messaging software supplier Jabber. This is because people install instant messaging software on their business machines after finding it useful at home. By the time the IT department finds out about it, it is often so ingrained in company culture that employees will complain if the IT department tries to switch it off.
Instead, companies could embrace and develop instant messaging. Analysts see a multi-tiered development process for it within commercial organisations. The bottom tier offers the least control for IT departments, as employees install their own instant messaging clients, creating a chaotic mix of different applications on desktops.
There are dangers in letting instant messaging applications remain at this level, says Kailash Ambwani, chief executive at instant messaging security company FaceTime. Instant messaging worms and spam (spim, as it is known in instant messaging circles), combined with potential security flaws in the instant messaging clients, provide yet another hole in an organisation's infrastructure, he warns.
Not everyone is convinced by these arguments. Jim Moffat, chairman of EEMA's Instant Messaging Group, says the EEMA survey shows managers are worrying more about the information leaking out of a business via instant messaging than about worms getting in.
With regulations imposing stiff guidelines on communications both behind and across company firewalls, firms have to think carefully about how information is monitored. To lock things down, they must move to the second level of instant messaging development.
Suppliers have provided a layer of security that tracks everything, regardless of the instant messaging system it runs across, says Charles Silberbauer, customer services engineer at IPC Information Systems, which provides communications systems to financial services companies.
"There are companies such as IMLogic and FaceTime happily sniffing out everything and providing the ability to log it and hand it off to storage houses such as EMC," he says.
Brian Trudeau, chief information officer at Amerex, a US-based energy exchange, found that traders were using instant messaging in his organisation. He realised its value and bought a system from IMLogic to lock it down within the company for compliance purposes.
"We do 70,000 to 80,000 instant messages a day in our environment of 100 to 150 people. That is high-velocity traffic, so our loggers have to keep up with that," he says. "We also have an enforcement tool that listens on the network and if it sees someone trying to circumvent the loggers it shuts them down."
Trudeau says the phone is still the best way to close a trade, because recorded phone calls are less prone to alteration than the electronic text files that instant messenger logging software generates. Brokers often use instant messaging to show the latest prices to their traders. If they see interest from a client, they can use the phone to close the deal.
User education plays a major role at Amerex, and Trudeau makes a point of explaining the policies surrounding the technology to the brokers. This is necessary to prevent some of the downsides of instant messaging.
Carmi Levy, senior analyst at Info-Tech Research, points out that many managers are still worried about the technology's negative effects. "I do not think companies have fully come to terms with how they can realise the productivity benefits of instant messaging without addressing the potential downside, which is where people are chatting all day and don't get any work done," he says.
Building effective policies to address the use of instant messaging is key to reaching the second level of maturity. John Mawhood, a partner at law firm Eversheds, warns against simply mapping an existing e-mail usage policy on to instant messaging.
"Because of its instantaneous nature and its informality, there is a concern that people will have their guard down, and therefore there is a need to reinforce this, particularly when they are outside the workplace," he says.
Mawhood advises making it clear which situations are appropriate for e-mail and which are appropriate for instant messaging. Outlining the type of information that should not be sent via instant messaging in company time, or in relation to the company, is important, he says, especially as employees might use instant messaging at home or from a mobile phone.
However, these measures are all designed to mitigate what many executives still believe is a problem. There are significant potential benefits to instant messaging if it is adopted across a company in a uniform way. Experts are promoting context as an important part of the equation, advocating the incorporation of instant messaging into workflow governed by collaboration software. This represents the third level of maturity in instant messaging, and it is where the real benefits lie, but very few companies have reached this point.
"Use instant messaging as a way to connect and help streamline a process," says Duncan Alldis, principal consultant at network consultancy Lan 2 Lan. "If you embed it in a solution dealing with a particular business issue, it is going to allow people to communicate much more quickly and it will allow them to deal with the task in hand."
Consequently, companies have been folding instant messaging into groupware and collaboration systems. Lotus' Sametime instant messaging and web conferencing platform complements the Domino groupware system. And Microsoft's Live Communications Server hooks instant messaging capabilities into its other back-end collaboration products such as Exchange and Sharepoint.
These suppliers, along with companies such as OpenText, which offers a content management and collaboration platform, are promoting the idea of instant messaging embedded within a portal, which reinforces the idea of contextual collaboration.
One problem that companies could face is the creation of links between these systems. Given the high level of resistance to instant messaging within middle management, rolling out uniform systems designed to incorporate it into a company's workflow could be challenging, leading to individual projects happening at a departmental level. As the technology matures, this could create communication silos within organisations.
Two standards - XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) and Simple (Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Extensions - could help solve the problem. Both are handled by the Internet Engineering Task Force, but Simple differs from XMPP in its support for integrating instant messaging with internet telephony.
"I do not see it being a major technological issue if someone wanted to integrate the two protocols in the future," says Stuart McRae, workplace strategist at IBM.
Although instant messaging developed from person-to-person communications, companies are also using other types of instant messaging interaction, such as person to-machine messaging. FaceTime operates an instant message-based directory assistant that enables employees to query an AOL "buddy" with a person's name. The buddy, which is actually a server application, sends back the contact information. This can be useful for querying contact databases from mobile phones, and can save someone having to log into an extranet.
Machine-to-person interaction also offers possibilities. If an event occurs that moves a company workflow forward, for example, an instant message could be sent to an employee with an embedded form or the selection of HTML hyperlinks.
But before such things can happen, companies must realise that instant messaging is happening at employee level, come to terms with it, and control it. Only then can they begin to harness it and realise some of the benefits while minimising the potential downsides of what is still, after eight years of existence, at the early stage of its growth curve.
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Case study: How NetEnergy trades on the benefits of instant messaging
"I didn't realise that all energy traders are using instant messaging on a daily basis," says Tim Gunn, chief executive at NetEnergy, an energy exchange based in Alberta, Canada.
Gunn, who set up NetEnergy after working at other exchanges in the region, explains that using instant messaging is a way of life for busy traders who need to conduct many conversations simultaneously. With some traders having as many as 90 instant messaging sessions on the desktop at once, he became concerned that conversations were not being logged.
Gunn began using the Jabber instant messaging server and client software, which logs conversations automatically. Jabber can also create machine-to-person instant messages, which Gunn is now using to confirm trades automatically.
Busy traders can sometimes make mistakes when writing down the details of the trade. A single mistake can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially because trades through the exchange are not reconciled for several days, meaning that they are sometimes not discovered immediately.
In the system currently being trialled at NetEnergy, a broker can create an electronic "ticket" and send it to a trading partner with details of the proposed deal. If the trader is happy, they can confirm the deal from within the instant messaging client, enabling the trade to be sent to a straight-through processing system. This creates an automated workflow that will help to increase the accuracy of trades.