We are all familiar with many forms of business communication: phone of course, e-mail, fax. Some of us even remember when telex was a common method. There is another method that has been in use for some years, primarily amongst teenagers–instant messaging or IM. This is a method of instantly communicating via typed messages over the Internet, rather like sending instant e-mails to a colleague who is sitting at his keyboard, able to reply immediately.
There are a number of IM programs available for free, through various Internet service suppliers or web portals. These include AIM (AOL Instant Messenger), Yahoo Instant Messenger and MSN Messenger, though it seems that every ISP is offering a similar service.
These systems are not normally recommended for business use, as they are too easily abused and can open corporate networks to security hazards not otherwise encountered. Some IM programs use proprietary protocols that may not be blocked or even detected by standard corporate firewalls. This can allow easy transfer of files in or out of the network. Such transfers could release confidential documents out of a network, or allow viruses or other malicious code into an otherwise-protected network.
However, it is possible to have an IM system that does not expose your network to such risks and can increase productivity. Some of them even integrate with your current e-mail system. Lotus has integrated its Sametime application into Notes, to allow users to see if an e-mail addressee is currently at his computer. Indicators appear at convenient places in Notes, such as the opening page, a pop-up list or even when you type a name into an e-mail. You can easily invite one or more of the addressees into an instant chat. This can be handled through a corporate network or a secure VPN connection, ensuring that IT security is maintained.
There are other challenges for the implementation and use of IM in business. Do the advantages in communication outweigh the cost of time lost in irrelevant chatting? How much use is IM when you can talk much faster than you can type? Why use IM in a business environment rather than sending an e-mail or picking up the phone?
There are a number of advantages of using IM:
* It is an instant form of communication without the charges of a long-distance phone call.
* A group of users can be easily assembled in one conversation.
* Files can be transferred during the conversation.
* A colleague can be consulted via IM during a phone call, without the other party on the phone being aware.
* Some things can be more easily explained in written form.
* Text can easily be copied from a document and pasted into an instant message.
An example would be an engineer working on a project in Chile who needs to consult with a colleague in Santiago and two in Vancouver. He could phone them separately, repeating himself each time to explain the situation, incurring long distance charges–and possibly have to do it all over again when one of them brings up a point needing further discussion. Or he could IM them all at once, explain his situation, initiating a discussion of the problem among all parties. This way, he explains the situation only once, the group quickly comes to a resolution together and the engineer can get on with his work.
So there are advantages to an instant messaging system, but proper implementation is not trivial. It is a system that should be evaluated for your own corporate needs and must be put into operation with care to avoid compromising network stability and security.
Freelance writer Dan Davies can be reached at email@example.com.