Despite concerns over security, Instant Messaging (IM) is moving out of teenagers' bedrooms and into the enterprise at an increasingly rapid rate. Some analysts are predicting that instant messaging will surpass e-mail as a communication tool by 2005 and at least one is arguing it is the next "killer app" beyond e-mail.
Is all this just another example of IT industry hype? Are there sound business reasons for deploying IM within the enterprise or is IM just another barrier to productivity, and a dangerous one at that given the issues with security?
As so often is the case, the answer to these questions is that it depends.
The IT industry is starting to talk up IM in the enterprise, but to a large extent it is playing catch up -- IM has already slipped in through the back door with some departments within companies adopting IM unbeknownst to the IT department.
Gartner's research analyst - IT trends and infrastructure software Asia-Pacific, Daniel McHugh, predicts that by 2003, 70 per cent of enterprises will have some sort of IM client running within the organisation -- whether they know it or not.
McHugh adds that Gartner believes that by 2005, 50 per cent of companies will be using enterprise-level rather than freeware IM clients, but also that in the same time frame, IM will overtake e-mail as the main means of electronic interaction between consumers.
"Really decentralised, mobile workforces will get a lot of value out of this [IM], McHugh said. "On top of that, any company that does have a very knowledge-centric or even professional services focus, for example law, accounting, and consulting firms. I think the more knowledge-based you are the greater the chance you'll be able to get some business value out of it."
It is, however, almost certainly going too far to say that IM is going to be the next "killer app".
IM will not fundamentally change the way we work -- if you are old enough to remember what pre-e-mail offices were like - e-mail did.
E-mail is now a crucial business tool and most of the people that we would label knowledge workers spend a large proportion of their day in their inbox.
Nevertheless, the security concerns inherent in freely available IM programs such Yahoo Messenger, MSN Instant Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ cannot be overstated.
Put simply, an IM session opens a port to your network, through the firewall if there is one in place. There have been instances in the US, where hackers have used an instant message to drop a worm in behind the firewall. In addition, with most, if not all, freeware IM clients there is no archiving of sent and received messages nor is there any encryption -- anything sent via IM could be read by someone with a mind to do so.
It should be noted, however, that enterprise-level IM clients -- such as IBM's Lotus SameTime and Yahoo Messenger enterprise edition -- do not suffer from these disadvantages and it is these products that analysts such as McHugh are suggesting Enterprises adopt. Microsoft's IM client in Exchange 2000 can be brought up to a similar level of security using add-on products such as IMLogic's IM Manager. And Microsoft's next-generation IM client will provide both encryption and archiving as it migrates from Exchange 2000 to the .Net Server platform according to lead product manager, Ross Dembecki.
While it is true that a small organisation concentrated in one area would find IM of limited value, organisations with workforces spread all over the country, all over the world and with employees telecommuting or working at remote sites are finding IM invaluable for keeping in touch.
Companies such as IBM, which uses its own SameTime product extensively, Microsoft which uses its IM client similarly, analyst groups such as Gartner, consultancies such Accenture and large accounting practices such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers, have all found IM to be an extremely useful tool for staying in touch with colleagues who may be in another city, state or country, but be members of the same virtual work team.
In the context of large, decentralised and spread out organisations, IM's presence awareness function is one of its most useful features. At a local level, if you are on the 20th floor of a building and need to talk face-to-face with someone who may be on the sixth floor, it is far more efficient to send an instant message asking, "have you got five minutes?" than it is to take the lift downstairs only to find your colleague isn't there, is on the phone or in a meeting. This is even more useful when workforces are even more widely distributed. McHugh was in Singapore at the time this article was being researched, but Gartner's marketing manager was able to tell this journalist, "Daniel's just logged in, I'll send him a message to call you", and sure enough minutes later the phone rang.
Consulting firm, Accenture, is also an enthusiastic user of instant messaging, but is unusual in that it uses freeware clients. The company's chief information officer - Asia Pacific, Geoff Hunter, said that while people aren't actively encouraged to use IM, the organisation had decided not to ban it either. Hunter said users are aware of the security issues with IM and know not to send anything over IM that they wouldn't want people outside Accenture to see.
Hunter also finds the presence awareness function to be one of the more useful aspects of IM. "It is a very useful way to be able to see whether someone is online or not, he said. "We have a lot of virtual work teams and people who are off site, so for them IM is a good way to keep in touch. My executive assistant is in another building yet we are able to remain in constant contact using IM."
Smaller companies with distributed workforces are also finding IM useful. Summit Internet Solutions owner, Bill Bowes, uses Lotus SameTime to keep in contact with clients and employees. "We're a small ISP with about 300 clients around Australia. I needed to be able to communicate with them, and them with me at different levels. We also use it to communicate internally, if one of ours guys is sick, he can stay at home but still communicate. If I go to Melbourne or Brisbane I get online and I can still communicate with the office," Bowes said.
While formal studies on IM in the workplace have yet to decide whether it really does increase productivity, problems abound with the alternatives. E-mail inboxes fill up at an alarming rate, hundreds each day for some people, while voicemails pile up almost as fast. For some organisations, the rapid-fire text message of IM with its ability to tell users who is available and who is not may well prove to be a worthwhile alternative.