Reality Check: IM as a unified collaboration platform

Is the ability to respond quickly to the right situation or to the right person at the right time at the very core of how your company conducts business? My guess is there are fewer and fewer companies that would answer that question in the negative.

We all know that IM (instant messaging) is a tremendous time-saver, allowing you to make fewer phone calls, answer fewer voice mails, and send and receive fewer e-mails. So when I spoke with Dave Marshak, director of IBM Lotus collaboration technology, on the occasion of the upcoming release of Lotus Sametime 7.5, I wanted to know what's next: How will IM's collaborative capabilities be extended once the enterprise adopts it?

Marshak envisions what he calls the "extension model," which will allow companies to broaden the IM paradigm through plug-ins. Sametime is built on top of the open source Eclipse platform, which makes it relatively easy to build in all kinds of corporate plug-ins. For example, a location-awareness plug-in looks at a user's IP subnet and compares it to a set of known locations, which matches the IM to a Zip code. Then the buddy list appears on a Google map via a Web service mashup.

But there are also plenty of new ideas, which will change or at least shorten any business process that relies on contacting people.

For example, there's contextual collaboration, as it is called. If you have an e-mail with a list of names or a PowerPoint presentation with the names of its creators, Sametime gives those names presence and makes them clickable, because Sametime is now integrated into Microsoft Office applications.

You could also build an interface to an existing application -- to pull data from SAP or to have a call-center application find people based on their roles. The Royal Canadian Navy is doing this to Sametime with its Officer of the Day plug-in, which is built on top of Queue Manager from Instant Technologies. Now imagine this in a corporate environment, where you might want to find a legal expert rather than hoping the one lawyer you know is around.

Still another possibility is for IT to build a plug-in that puts the answers to queries into a company's FAQ system.

Not only is IM extensible, but it can also be escalated with one click to a videoconference or VOIP call. With presence we can start with text, move to talk, pull data, and find experts. Marshak sees IM platforms becoming miniature communications portals for the enterprise.

One caveat to all of these free-wheeling, unified communications capabilities, however, is government regulation. Fortunately, companies like Akonix Systems, FaceTime, and IMlogic (recently acquired by Symantec) offer in-stream content viewing solutions that can block or archive any IM conversation, based on business rules for compliance. I should also mention that IBM is not the only player with an EIM solution. Jive Software is also open source, but based on the GPL license rather than Eclipse; there is also Antepo, a commercial EIM vendor.

There is another downside that has to be considered. Up until now, people were the "un-automated" part of a business process. Only the machines were always on and always available. Now the human factor is in danger of getting obliterated. Thanks to these technologies, we might become more like machines than many of us would prefer.

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