Although instant messaging (IM) can be a convenient way to communicate at work, just as often it seems to end up as a comedy of errors: misinterpretations of tone, sending a personal message to the wrong contact and putting up with the terrible nicknames the guy in sales, a.k.a. "Sultan_of_Sales", feels compelled to use.
While it's no secret that IM has been criticized for being intrusive, an increasing number of companies, including PeopleSoft Inc., IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., are starting to rely on IM for business communications and have standardized on a particular application in the process. Others have only started to think about where IM could fit into their organization, or support limited use of IM through free download clients.
"IM by and large to date has been a consumer phenomenon," explained Nate Root, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "It has been something that people have adopted to chat with their friends and their relatives and it's something that has been accidentally co-opted for use within companies."
The most popular consumer platforms for chatting are America Online (AOL) Inc.'s Instant Messenger, Yahoo Inc.'s Instant Messenger, and Microsoft Corp.'s Instant Messenger (MSN). In the enterprise space, Microsoft and IBM and the top two providers of IM solutions. The former offers its SharePoint Services Collaboration platform with an IM client that integrates with its Office Suite, while IBM has its Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing, formerly know as Lotus Sametime.
Throughout September and October of last year, Forrester surveyed about 1,000 companies to see what their purchasing plans were for IM in 2004. Root said 25 percent of these companies already had some sort of IM up and running, about 50 percent didn't have any plans or didn't know what the company's plans were, and the remaining 25 percent were considering purchasing or piloting an IM product in 2004. Two-thirds of these companies had annual revenues greater than US$1 billion, while the remaining 33 percent had annual revenues between US$500 million to US$1 billion.
"Right now it's kind of like the wild, wild west out there. The companies that are progressive are really going after (IM) and are trying to find solutions very quickly," Root said. "Eventually what should happen is the large platform vendors will come to an agreement on standards like Session Initiation Protocol or SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE), and eventually get some real interoperability between the major network products."
However, it is not easy for companies to get a handle on IM, Root said. Not only is it difficult to know who is using what, but enforcing Draconian policies such as blocking ports so users can't download consumer IM apps is also very difficult. "Employees are very good at finding ways to use the collaboration tools they like," he said. "IM is very much a grassroots phenomenon and once it has started it's hard to get the cat (back) in the bag."
IBM is one example of an early adopter, but it also had the advantage of being a vendor of one of the most popular enterprise IM platform. About five years ago, IBM embarked on an IM pilot project to determine the viability of its use for business. The company asked its employees to volunteer to participate in the program. The response was overwhelming. Expecting only a few thousand, nearly 65,000 employees worldwide said they wanted in, explained Amy Reuss-Caton, product marketing manager, real-time collaboration at IBM in Cambridge, Mass.
The staggering interest shown in this pilot project spurred IBM to get serious about its IM platform. IBM kept at the pilot projects until February 2000, when it rolled out Lotus Sametime enterprise-wide.
Reuss-Caton said IBM estimates that about 225,000 of its 300,000 employees worldwide use IM regularly and the CIO's office has reported peak concurrence levels of 165,000 users.
"IBM Global Services said it was the most successful technology roll-out in the history of the company," she said.
She said that in IBM's experience one general trend with IM is that it tends to start out in sales and support, with other departments following suit. Now she said it is heavily used in the marketing and finance departments.
"It's very compelling if you hear a CFO say 'I can't live without it,'" she said.
Today, IBM's IM users average about three million messages per day, up from 2.5 million messages per day in 2002. The company has also seen a four percent reduction in telephone use, and a reduction in the load on its e-mail servers.
IBM employees communicate primarily with each other, but can also communicate with certain applications. For example, Reuss-Caton said there are several apps, including a dictionary and the corporate directory, to which users can send IM queries and receive responses. For example, if Reuss-Caton queried the database with an employee name, it would return all the employee's details, including presence awareness information telling the user whether that individual is online.
IBM differs from some other large organizations with standardized IM because it does not limit who its employees can add to their buddy lists. However, the users can determine who is allowed to see their presence information as available.
Pleasanton, Calif.-based software maker PeopleSoft is another early adopter. It standardized on Lotus Sametime in 1997. At that time, David Thompson, CIO of PeopleSoft said employees had started to download ICQ and Yahoo IM on their desktops and it was starting to cause technology conflicts.
PeopleSoft chose Sametime because the product integrates with the corporate directory, which allows PeopleSoft to control the IM infrastructure. That means users have to be registered within the corporate directory, ensuring that users aren't duped into chatting with someone using a false identity. However, Thompson said PeopleSoft doesn't restrict its employees from using a public network IM, such as Yahoo, MSN, or AOL, but says the company is aware of the security risks and are looking into changing its policy. Right now PeopleSoft also uses a gateway that allows users to communicate securely with the Yahoo network.
PeopleSoft's users include 3,000 consultants who spend a great deal of time on the road, and use IM to communicate with each other. Other heavy users include human resources, support, R&D and Finance. Even 40 percent of PeopleSoft's executive team use IM, Thompson said.
Although Thomspon acknowledges there are downsides to using IM, such as the security risks involved with users believing their conversations are private, he said the pros far outweigh the cons.
Indeed this sentiment seems to be consensus among some large companies not just IBM and PeopleSoft but with Sun as well.
In early 2003, Sun standardized on its own IM product, Sun Java System Instant Messaging 6.0.
"Sun's product has been in development for three to four years, but prior to its existence we started to see IM in different departments through the public networks like AOL, MSN, and Yahoo," explained Jennifer Belissent, product line manager, communications software for Sun in Santa Clara, Calif.
"As use increased, Sun's IT department became more and more concerned with the security issues of using public network. Since communications are transmitted across the open Internet, there is no session encryption to ensure the communication is safe and there is no authentication of users," she added. However, Sun does not prohibit its employees from using public network IM.
"I'd love to say that everyone at Sun is well-behaved and only uses the Sun-sanctioned applications (but that isn't the case)," she said. "It's very common, and convenient but it's not secure."
Belissent said companies need to make the decision whether or not they want to allow their users to employ public network IM, and that there are ways of using third-party products to consolidate contact lists from different networks. The problem is that while the lists can be viewed in one location, it is still not possible to communicate with contacts from different networks.
"I couldn't have an open chat with someone from AOL, someone from MSN and someone from Yahoo," she added. "Individually I could contact each of them, but I can't have cross network communications because the protocols are not standardized."
Sun didn't automatically adopt its own product, Belissent said. The company also considered using Jabber, an Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP)-based IM product. There are two sources for Jabber: Jabber.org, the open source implementation and Jabber.com, the commercial implementation. However, Sun's IT department decided to go for its own Java System Instant Messaging 6.0 when it realized the 6.1 version, to be released in January 2004 would support XMPP.
Java System IM integrates with Sun's Java System Identity Server, which provides the rules engine. This provides a granular access policy so certain types of users can gain access to different information and different applications across the network. This also allows IT to give access to users based upon their roles in the company, so only certain users can access particular features or add particular people to their buddy lists.
Within Sun, IM is popular during conference calls with press or analysts, so spokespeople can quickly get answers to unexpected questions. It is also commonly used during meetings with customers and with R&D groups in disparate locations.
Despite a number of companies harnessing IM for business needs, there are still some companies that so far have seen little business value in real-time chatting tools.
Telus Corp., based in Burnaby, B.C., has conducted a number of pilots projects with IM and has found little internal user demand, said Charlie Fleet, a spokesperson for Telus in Edmonton. "It does have value, but in terms of business communications, the limits outweigh any sort of value that could be derived from it," he said. Telus has so many protocols involved in its antivirus and spam filters (as well as its firewall and security applications) that if IM was implemented the policies would be so restrictive it would defeat the benefits, Fleet added.
Telus employees can also not use public network IM, because communications are restricted through the corporate firewall.
In contrast, PCL Constructors Inc. in Edmonton uses Microsoft's Windows SharePoint services for its collaboration needs, but doesn't widely take advantage of the IM capabilities. "It's not really an official part of our collaborative services, but we have pockets where IM is being used to work with folks internally and externally," said Shane Crawford, manager, infrastructure for PCL.
Right now, IM is being primarily used by the IT department and technical support folks. PCL does not restrict its IM users in any way but also does not see any particular value in IM as a business tool. "IM doesn't cut it when you're trying to conduct a business," Crawford explained. He said that IM doesn't provide PCL with the paper trail it requires for legal and auditing purposes involved with its business.
For example, if there was a problem on a construction site, and PCL made a request to the customer how to handle it, it would need to get an answer that was documented and trackable; IM wouldn't be formal enough, he said.
Love it or hate it, IM is fast becoming a part of the business world. Whether a company will find IM to be useful depends on the legislation around storing electronic transactions, its network infrastructure and its security needs.
One thing is certain, once a consumer IM client is pervasive on employee's desktops it is difficult to control it. This is one reason why organizations need to have clear, enforceable policies when it comes to the use of IM.
"You can attack corporate IM compliance with a carrot or with a stick," said Forrester's Root. "You can shut off IM ports, try to block traffic and try to block people from downloading clients, basically use a stick to beat everyone into compliance. Or you can you use a carrot, which I think is better advised, and you can offer people better service and better tools they have now."