Putting IM on the payroll

Tito Toro could put the brakes on if he wanted to.

As director of information technology for Houston-based Amerex Energy, a brokerage firm with offices in New York, London and Singapore, Toro has the power to deny Amerex’s brokers access to their much-loved AOL instant messaging software.

But he hasn’t. And although the thought of clear-text messages regularly leaving Amerex’s walls through an insecure medium troubles him, he isn’t likely to act on those fears anytime soon. The bottom line is that the brokers, who work in an industry that thrives on information, need access to IM in order to do their jobs.

“The reality is the marketplace goes in that direction, and you have to respond,” Toro said. “But AOL isn’t our network, it’s a public network, so we’re definitely concerned.”

And Toro isn’t alone. “It’s this dirty secret that exists, and IT bodies don’t want to deal with it, they know their staff are using it,” said Greg Lane, director of business development at CIRC Inc., an integrator and reseller of IM software in Edmonton.

According to Osterman Research, IT departments have a schizophrenic relationship with IM. On one hand, nearly one-quarter of all corporate IT departments surveyed by the messaging analyst firm have resorted to locking out access to downloaded IM clients altogether. Still, the majority of IT staff said they’re neutral to favourable on the issue, and nearly 60 per cent said at least one of the major IM clients (the big three are AOL Instant Messenger, Microsoft’s MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger) were currently being used in their organization. Respondents also expected their IM use to double over the next year.

Experts say such debates are probably a moot point – nearly half of the 506 million IM users predicted by 2005 will be corporate users. And as today’s teens grow older and enter the workforce, and those who like to chat at home become more attached to IM, they’ll likely view the technology as integral to their day-to-day jobs as e-mail has become and the phone long since has been. That’s why many of those in favour of IM view the naysayers as Luddites, akin to those who fretted over the arrival of e-mail in the workplace over a decade ago. The skeptics, however, say they’re merely trying to keep a lid on a potential threat to their networks.

The good, the bad

James Crooks, a consultant and manager of information security with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Vancouver, said the attitude of most large companies to the use of unsanctioned IM is simple – just say no.

“They say ‘Instant messaging? Never. It’s too flaky and too prone to problems,'” he said. Because it allows users to tunnel through firewalls, and isn’t typically scanned by normal proxies and protection mechanisms, they feel the risk is too high.

And the risks are considerable, at least on the surface. A worker who downloads an IM client and begins chatting is likely risking more than he or she knows. With it, sensitive corporate information can be sent unencrypted over public networks, raising fears of potential firewall holes. IM viruses and spam are now common.

Then there’s the spectre of thousands of staff members whittling away the workday hours chatting with spouses or friends, or worse, possibly offending customers or business partners by intruding on their workday with a sudden pop-up window, or simply by contacting them in a medium where informality and quick, breezy sentiments are the norm.

“That’s really valid. It’s easy. You can be diverted away from what you do,” said Michael Sampson, consulting research analyst with San Francisco-based Ferris Research Inc.

Some managers fear that staff will conclude business deals via IM, leaving no supporting log left behind to prove who promised what. Even Toro says he and Amerex managers have expressly forbidden their staff to conduct any official business transactions via IM.

On the other hand, there are the benefits: the power to reach a colleague instantaneously, and receive data in a flash, is undeniable. Workgroups can hold virtual meetings, making geography a non-factor. And virtual teams can form and disband with ease.

And regardless of what side of the fence they’re currently sitting on, most in the industry understand that the emergence of IM as a productivity tool is likely to happen sooner rather than later. “I personally believe there is value to IM in the enterprise,” Sampson said. “It enables you to bring those social cues together that you might not get if you’re not in the same office.”

Even Crooks said the most conservative of his corporate clients, those who are currently preventing their staff from using IM, realize that they’re buying time, and that the day will come when that dam will burst. They simply want to make sure it’s on their time.

Looking for help

This is the angle – taming IM into something safe and manageable – that a variety of software vendors have taken as they try and convince a sometimes leery enterprise customer base that they should embrace collaboration, which they say can boost ROI if properly used.

“This started out as the idea of being able to quickly talk to someone.to get a quick reply. [But] if you talk about an IM solution being able to support document transfer, a phone call.then you’re adding a lot of business value to it,” said Ben Watson, .Net Web services product manager at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont.

Microsoft has three options for those customers who wish to message in safety: IM technology embedded in its Microsoft Exchange 2000 product, an upcoming, real-time communication server that bolts onto Windows .Net Server (due later this year) dubbed Greenwich, and MSN Messenger Connect, the simplest option, which allows customers to use a special version of the consumer MSN client and keep logs of their correspondence.

The many options

The Exchange-class solution, along with competing products from Oracle and Lotus, are the most expensive, extensive and secure, and of which IM is only a small component. Next are the specialized, off-the-shelf IM client software packages, provided most notably by companies such as Denver-based Jabber Inc., which supplies a scalable, XML-based IM communications platform. Both the above can be tied into other applications.

Houston-based Advanced Reality Inc., for instance, sells Presence AR Adapters for Excel and PowerPoint, which allows enterprises to collaborate from the point of view of the data they’re seeing, according to the company. Once installed, users can view the exact same spreadsheet or slide, and message each other within that view to make changes or adjustments to the data, or to come to decisions.

Although users could also view the same data and collaborate via consumer IM clients, Presence AR allows users to log all the messaged data for later viewing, and lets managers keep tabs. “To be effective, you have to capture the data automatically,” said Derek Roths, CTO at Advanced Reality.

On the bottom rung are the beefed-up consumer clients from the big three themselves, such as Messenger Connect, Yahoo’s Messenger Enterprise Edition 1.0 and AOL’s Enterprise AIM Services.

Lieutenant-commander Rob Sibbald, senior staff officer of information managment in the Canadian Navy, said his organization’s use of Lotus Sametime, which it installed two years ago to help connect different ships at sea, has been well received.

The Navy had earlier tried running NetMeeting over intranets, but it wasn’t sold on the security. “And we’re very bandwidth limited.you can’t run a big cable out of your ship” Sibbald said, “Voice takes up a considerable amount of [bandwidth], much more than messaging.” Sametime has helped an estimated 400 crewmembers on various ships free up bandwidth for other matters, and engage in more “impromptu meetings,” he said. “We expect our use of IM to grow in the future as well.”

Sibbald said there were concerns about going with Sametime, but they turned out to be unfounded. “We had a lot of people that thought it would be intrusive, ‘here’s another thing that’s coming to me.’ There was a fear that people would misuse the IM and not talk about business matters. But none of that came to the forefront. A lot of that is training.”

Those who advocate sanctioning IM say educating staff about the pros and cons of IM, and treating them as adults, will often head off any potential problems with abuse. In fact, encouraging staff to use it as often as possible in a work capacity helps them to absorb IM into the work mindset, said Joanne Clerk, regional manager of eastern Canada at Lotus Software. IBM uses Sametime on a worldwide basis, and at peak times might have 120,000 concurrent users on its network. “There’s a few who feel it might be an interruption, but they view the phone in the very same way,” Clerk said.

But Lane said the potential benefits are too inviting to pass up for long. “It’s an alternative communications backbone.

“When you bring it in-house, you can start to control it,” he said.

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