Thought for the day: Instant productivity gain

Instant messaging will revolutionise business communications, says Mark Latchford.

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Instant messaging will revolutionise business communications, says Mark Latchford. 



At a time when "the next big thing" too often disappears in a puff of smoke, instant messaging is rapidly becoming a key component of enterprise IT.

IM will revolutionise communication, data sharing and collaboration across enterprises by making these activities significantly more productive.

According to a report from analyst firm Gartner, IM take-up is growing at about 20% a year. It is expected to be in use in 70% of companies by the end of this year, and it will have surpassed e-mail as the primary online communication tool by 2005.

This is happening because the technology is improving the productivity of employees. At IBM, for example, some 75% of staff say that IM has changed the way they communicate, lessening the time they must spend with e-mail and voicemail, on the phone and in face-to-face communications. More than 80% say that IM makes their job easier. Among IBM's clients who have IM, 75% say the technology makes them more productive.

And that is just the start. In future, IM will embrace "in-context" communications, in which the names of all the people involved in a document, piece of data, or video file are attached as live links. So, if you have a question about the document, you run your cursor over a name to find out if the individual is online; if they are, you just click to send an instant query. This "contextual collaboration" can be extended to partners, suppliers and key customers.

IM's success depends on three factors: interoperability, security, and "community selection".

Interoperability - the capability for people with different systems to communicate with one another - has been a problem for consumer IM, mainly because the applications are advertising-driven and thus need to be proprietary to create value. This artificial restriction holds back IM's network effect, in which value increases as each additional user is added to the network.

Enterprise IM must operate transparently and seamlessly, no matter what software or operating system is being used, and open technology standards must be enforced as IM evolves. In this way, each organisation's adoption of IM will add value to the overall network.

Security is clearly a concern with IM, just as it is with e-mail. While more companies are adding encryption to their IM offerings to boost security, encryption is just the tip of the iceberg. In order to provide enhanced security, IM systems must authenticate users by confirming their identities based on a trusted source such as a corporate directory, so that users always know that the people they are chatting with are who they say they are.

IM software must also give the enterprise the flexibility to choose the people who will be included in the network. This community selection may include anyone in a partner organisation, customers, or key individuals at supplier companies. Selectivity can greatly enhance security, but it must be network-friendly and function easily and transparently.

IM has tremendous potential, but it must be managed well. Gartner describes IM as "a foundation technology for the real-time enterprise", but also warns that misuse and overload of IM could become worse than that of e-mail if it is not controlled properly.

If there are any obstacles to enterprise IM adoption, they will come from the IT industry's failure to agree on the open standards necessary to make IM a success. But I don't think that will happen because the IT industry has made significant progress in applying open standards to other areas, and IM has such massive potential that commercial pressure should ensure that any significant barriers to adoption are torn down as soon as they appear.

What do you think?

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Mark Latchford is vice-president EMEA for IBM Lotus Software

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