IM still on the down-low

Once upon a time, long, long ago, nobody knew what e-mail was.

A little while later, instant messaging came along, and nobody knew what that was either.

Today, e-mail has become an integral part of any company’s infrastructure and a big part of every IT manager’s purview. But instant messaging continues to stay, for the most part, hidden in the shadows, with enterprise-grade implementations only gaining ground slowly and most use done on the down-low by employees used to the communication convenience in their after-work hours.

InterCall Inc., a Chicago-based conferencing solution provider, claims that, among its customers, instant messaging has moved from being a consumer pastime to being sanctioned and recognized as a tool in the enterprise setting. “They run the gamut from a few people using the consumer tools to sophisticated unified communications technology,” said Warren Baxley, vice-president of products. “We’ve seen a lot of people hooking instant messaging in with conference and collaboration services and unified communications.”

For the most part, however, research shows that instant messaging is still kept quiet when it comes to most companies, according to Nigel Wallis, research director with IDC Canada Ltd.

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A recent survey done by the research firm found that the majority of instant messaging use in the enterprise is done informally. Thirty-five per cent of respondents said it had trickled in via individuals, while another 22 per cent said that it had made its way into the company informally via IT staffers. Another 19 per cent said that the lines of business had taken to using it. Only 20 per cent of respondents had seen a formal top-down implementation of an enterprise-grade solution.

“It won’t be long (before it becomes far more widespread),” said Wallis. “It’s probably about a three- to five-year window.”

For now, one of the main trends Baxley and Wallis see emerging is the enthusiastic embracing of instant messaging during Web meetings. This offers users the opportunity to chat amongst themselves about the meeting content, as well as interact better with the moderator and other participants.

The real-time aspect also allows for obtaining additional information faster; for example, if a participants wants some extra facts or information, the moderator or another participant can quickly grab the information from a subject matter expert instead of having to wait until after the meeting to get and send the info.

“This can definitely improve the quality of the meeting,” said Wallis.

There are still some grumblers in the ranks, according to Baxley. They tend to be older, he said, and often in senior management positions. These are the people, Baxley said, who tend not to use instant messaging at all, who are the least interested in adopting new technologies, and who could be pestered the most, due to their seniority.

This is one of the areas where even the vendors haven’t fully caught up yet, according to Baxley. “It’s that end user manageability,” he said. “I’d like to see the ability to have more control over who has access to who and when. There’s a definite need for more sophistication around that.”

David Mario Smith, senior research analyst with Gartner Inc., said, “With the younger generation, it’s their go-to means of communication. They see different ways of using tools and technologies. We do see these different generations, and they don’t exactly line up.”

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They often don’t consider the security issues, either. Many users think that using a consumer technology in the workplace can’t do much harm, and bringing their home messaging clients into the workplace is becoming easier and easier, due to the increased federation between messaging clients, according to Smith.

“And, as instant messaging is moving that way, we see central IT playing a stronger role. Once that data is on instant messaging, it’s off into the cloud, so a whole cottage industry has developed around instant messaging hygiene,” Smith said.

“This has a lot of implications, from the way customers contact you to your marketing presence,” said Wallis. “Companies really need to be proactive about it.”

“If there are any regulatory issues, an enterprise-grade solution is the best way to go. Since instant messaging is a place where content resides, it can really be a smoking gun. So even if there isn’t an enterprise-grade solution, policy definitely still needs to be formed,” Smith said.

Here, it’s best if HR takes the lead, said Smith, not IT. “They should work in conjunction with one another,” Smith said.

It might also be worth the cash or time necessary for proper training on e-policy and instant messaging protocol, according to Wallis. “Because it’s more informal, a lot of workers don’t think the rules (regarding personal use, privacy, and security) don’t apply. This can lead to conflicts,” he said.

Wallis suggests that many companies might find themselves in trouble if their employees are losing productivity or leaking sensitive information via the messaging client, and the resources needed to train workers on policy will be worth it in the end — and might actually save the company money.