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Don't fight IM, learn to manage it

Instant messaging software is increasingly becoming an irreplaceable piece of how people take care of business on a daily basis, no matter what kind of organization they work for.

There is little doubt that instant messaging applications have rapidly become one of the most important productivity tools in the modern workplace. Everyone from the stockbroker to the factory manager has tapped into the power of the real-time communications software to work together, multitask and troubleshoot problems faster than ever before.

Yet industry experts are advising corporate IT managers to be wary of the widely available consumer-oriented IM systems that helped make this method of communication so ubiquitous. With few controls for network security or corporate governance, these IM tools from household names such as America Online and Microsoft Corp. are better suited for teenagers trading love notes than they are for professionals conducting executive discourse, experts report.

As a result, new IM systems designed specifically for business users by these same software makers and others are already hitting the market, with more products and vendors descending on the space every day. Industry analysts and business consultants have begun sketching out various strategies for dealing with the rise and inherent challenges of deploying IM in the enterprise.

Don't try to fight it

As if you could. Keeping workers from using IM is likely to be counterproductive and nearly impossible, according to some sources. Part of the reason is because so many people have already downloaded free IM software from AOL, Microsoft or Yahoo, without ever giving their IT systems administrators so much as a "heads up" e-mail. According to Bob Bellman, president of IT consultancy Brook Trail Research, Natick, Mass., it's best to begin carefully gathering information on just who in your organization is using IM, which platforms they prefer and how vital it has already become to doing business.

"You can't really stop IM, so you have to learn to manage it," Bellman said. "IM is going to show up in your company networks, no matter how badly you'd prefer not to deal with it. So it's better to figure out how to cope with it sooner rather than later."

A good first step in assessing the extent to which IM is already present in your organization is achieved by polling employees without seeming threatening, he said. If you make it clear that your company is ready to embrace the tools as an accepted manner of improving workflow, employees are less likely to try and hide their practices and preferences, thus making it easier to begin plotting a corporate strategy, Bellman said.

Consider your options

With the array of IM platforms on the market, from consumer-oriented systems to new products developed specifically for enterprise usage, it's good to take a long look at which program is going to best fit your organization, according to Robert Mahowald, research manager at Framingham, Mass.-based researcher International Data Corp.

"Making a decision as to what kind of IM platform you need will determine how big your universe is, in terms of whom you can reach, and how big your investment is," he said.

There are currently three strategies followed by most organizations, Mahowald said. The first and most restrictive is requiring workers to use an internal-only IM system that does not allow people to interface with users outside their organization. Since most IM users are already comfortable communicating with whomever they choose via IM, this approach tends not to go over well, he said.

The second option, and likely the most common, is using "gateway" software that allows corporate IT managers to oversee usage of popular systems such as AOL IM (AIM). This is also the most cost effective, Mahowald said, because there is no up-front investment in an IM system. Yet this approach delivers some of the controls offered by enterprise-specific tools, such as filtering IM files for inappropriate materials.

The third and fastest growing strategy involves deployment of enterprise IM systems, such as the new AIM corporate system, or IBM Corp.'s Lotus Notes-based systems, Mahowald said. These products often interact with widely dispersed IM network software but give companies the ability to assign specific domain names to users, save records of IM communications on internal networks, and build tighter security parameters, he said.

Policy, policy, policy

Bellman is quick to point out that many organizations have already been stung by some sort of IM-related scandal, whether it be co-workers getting caught using IM to flirt or proprietary information escaping to external parties via a mistaken or malicious click of the enter key. In order to prevent IM from becoming as much of a headache as a helpful tool, it is imperative to set specific policies for how and when IM is or isn't used, he said. Bellman recommends that even if a firm is depending on free consumer IM platforms to do business, companies should make the minimal investment needed to deploy third-party software that allows IT administrators to filter message files to make sure the systems aren't being used improperly.

"The only thing you can compare IM to is e-mail, except it can be even more conversational, as it's practically real-time," Bellman said. "You have to lay out the ground rules and make sure users are fully aware of all the policies and potential penalties for misuse."

Since many businesses are also required by government regulatory bodies to record and retain files of all business communications, this lends another reason to consider corporate-oriented systems, he said.

Consider long-term integration possibilities

One of the biggest potential benefits of incorporating enterprise IM systems is the ability to integrate the tools with existing IT systems, including back-office systems like financials, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM). Mahowald said IDC is already working toward this goal, and the benefits show themselves almost immediately.

"We have IM designed so that I can be messaging with someone via cell phone, and the home network lets me know whether their contract has already expired or not," he said. "Consider the options for people in roles like sales, who will be able to garner up-to-the-minute account information about a customer as they communicate with them via IM. That's where IM goes from a useful tool to an irreplaceable resource, when it becomes an integrated piece of your business process."

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