The instant messaging debate

Instant messaging (IM) conjures up images of bored teenagers using a software-based gossiping tool. Most IM programs are free, and few competing products can talk to one another, making skeptics wonder how useful IM is in the enterprise.

But some business users, especially remote workers parked in front of desks all day and eager for contact with colleagues, have become avid users of IM as a way of quickly swapping messages and information.

The jury is still out on whether IM increases workplace productivity. But even people who believe that IM isn’t an ideal business technology, with its rapid-fire text messages, acknowledge that there are problems with the alternatives. E-mail and voice mail pile up, and a recent report found that more than 60 per cent of business phone calls never reach their intended recipients. Such deficiencies may help explain the growing number of IM users: According to Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., 42 per cent of business Internet users use IM in the workplace, even though 70 per cent of IT departments don’t support it.

While many executives aren’t convinced of its worth to the enterprise, “the tens of millions of people using IM through the Web must be getting some benefit,” says Dana Gardner, research director for messaging and collaboration services at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston.

Organizations like the U.S. Navy, which uses Lotus Software Group’s Sametime for secure, almost instantaneous ship-to-ship and submarine-to-shore communications, say IM makes life easier. The Navy values having written transcripts of all orders and communiqu