New communications tools bring promise

Time for a technology pop quiz. Which of the following does not belong?

A) OTP B) RUT C) B&R D) L8R

If you chose "C", proceed to the head of the class. For those unfamiliar with these acronyms, they are just a sample of the new vocabulary being employed by avid users of instant messaging applications. These so-called "walkie-talkies" of the Internet may actually be the most useful applications, after e-mail, within your organisation.

Instant messaging applications such as America Online's Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and Microsoft Network's Messenger Service continue to appear on users' desktops in ever-growing numbers. They've come a long way since their inception. These improvements have made instant messaging applications very useful, and also potentially dangerous. Besides the ability to carry conversations in near real time, some instant messaging applications have features that make them fully functioning communication tools.

For example, the current version of AOL's Instant Messenger lets users transfer files within the instant messaging application. This may sound like a very useful feature, but consider the security risks. While your organisation spends money ensuring all e-mail is scanned for viruses and inside information, and violations of company policies, along come these free applications which create a whole new ball game.

Besides changing your view on security, these applications will also change your view of time tracking and long-distance phone calls. Many professionals, such as lawyers, track time very closely and use phone records for client billing. Now imagine a communication tool used on an impromptu basis to discuss client business that leaves no trail. How can you bill a customer for time when you have no proof to back up the billing claim? True, it may be less expensive to conduct a 15-minute conversation via instant messaging software, but if professional advice given during that exchange results in a lawsuit, it's back to "he said, she said" in the courtroom.

Despite the potential risks to company security and billable hours, instant messaging does offer IT departments some positive benefits. Instant messaging applications spread a message quickly to employees when e-mail is too slow. In the wake of the recent "ILoveYou" virus, consider the resource savings if your IT staff had a way of sending an instant virus alert to employees with just a few keystrokes. It can also reduce long-distance costs and improve internal company communications.

It's time to treat these applications as strategic tools. But you need to get in front of the problem. Now's the time to play with the toys and understand their usefulness, rather than looking back and wishing you had.

By the way, here are the answers to the quiz: OTP means "On The Phone", RUT means "aRe yoU There?" and L8R means "later".

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