vicki powers
freelance writer

Business at the Speed of IM

Fuel, September 2006

by Vicki Powers

The 10-person marketing department at Aplus.Net, a San Diego-based online solutions provider, shares one cubicle. To help reduce distractions and provide some level of privacy in such close quarters, the staff relies on instant messaging (IM) — the real-time online communication tool made popular by teens. “Unlike a phone call or an e-mail, IM allows us to multitask, saving us time and increasing productivity,” says Theo Ivanov, marketing director for Aplus.Net.

Companies of all sizes are increasingly turning to IM to facilitate the exchange of information with customers, clients and employees more efficiently and less intrusively than by conventional means. In fact, with the latest enterprise IM systems, business users can host chats with customers and alert them to conferences; encourage customers to contact sales and customer service; hold team meetings across time zones; and enable collaboration on projects between different departments or offices. Most systems also offer a “presence” capability, which indicates whether a user’s contacts are currently online and available to chat.

In an average workday, 2 billion instant messages are sent by 48 million business users over enterprise IM networks, estimates IDC, a market intelligence provider in Framingham, Mass. Those numbers jump to 10 billion and 65 million, respectively, when consumer IM networks such as Yahoo! and AOL are factored in. In a report titled “Is Your Business Ready for Instant Messaging?” author Gary Onks, a senior marketing consultant in Fredericksburg, Va., says IM will be the preferred contact method of consumers within five years.

“I personally have used IM during online meetings and training workshops to quietly and privately coordinate what I and other members of my team should say or do next without disrupting the meeting or workshop,” says Mark Levitt, vice president, collaborative computing, for IDC. “IM can answer questions and resolve issues more quickly than e-mail.”

That said, IT departments across industries are still wrangling with how to seamlessly integrate this grassroots technology for business use, given security and compliance concerns. Paul Kowal, a business consultant and telecom expert for Boston-based Kowal & Associates, recommends that IT departments work closely with senior management to create standard IM practices. “We’re a ‘now’ kind of society,” he adds. “So from my perspective, IM can improve the conversation.”

If your company is considering business IM, here are some things you should keep in mind:

The Pros

Efficient, real-time communication . At Thomas Weisel Partners, a San Francisco-based investment firm, more than 70 percent of the 550 employees actively use IM — resulting in thousands of online conversations daily. The institutional traders and sales groups not only communicate with outside customers and clients about hot investments and the state of the market, they also keep employees at their New York and Boston offices abreast of the latest news.

”The broker/dealer industry is fast paced,” says Beth Cannon, chief security officer for Thomas Weisel. “The market opens and people are getting on two calls at once and doing IM and e-mail at the same time. [Instant messaging] has given people the ability to communicate in new ways — and faster.”

Global collaboration . Employees at USAS Technologies, a New York-based IT consulting and professional services firm, use IM to communicate globally with staff in India and China on project work and operational issues. USAS’ chief operating officer, Seth Hishmeh, says IM saves thousands of dollars each month on long-distance calls. “Without IM, we would not be able to operate as efficiently as we do now,” he notes.

The Cons

Security. Many organizations do not allow employees to use IM unless the business invests in an enterprise-wide IM solution. Benjamin Lewis, president of Perception Inc., a Gaithersburg, Md.-based public relations firm, removed IM from his business because it provided a portal to viruses. To centrally manage and control security for its IM activity, Getty Images turned to IMlogic, an enterprise software solution purchased by Symantec in 2006. The Seattle-based provider of film and digital photographic services can limit IM access to certain clients, obtain usage reports, and create rules for issues such as content filtering and file transfer controls to safeguard employees and protect intellectual data, says Margaret McDonald, information security manager for Getty Images. “Don’t be naive in thinking that IM does not exist in your environment because it is likely that it already does. Solutions to secure IM are available and well worth the cost.”

Productivity concerns . According to IDC’s Levitt, because IM windows can pop up frequently on one’s computer screen, they can be disruptive. Personal IM use can also be a drain on productivity. Cannon says it’s critical that department managers establish — and enforce — general IM policies.

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