Instant messaging

Real-time collaboration takes corporate users by storm

IM (INSTANT MESSAGING) is changing corporate communications, and it's doing so without the prodding or even the approval of executives and IT managers. Combining the real-time advantages of a phone call with the convenience of e-mail, IM is so compelling it often gets implemented through the back door, with distributed workgroups downloading public IM clients and using them without getting the nod from IT.

With IM, employees in one office can easily communicate with employees or partners across the country or down the hall. Customer service and support departments can use IM to communicate with customers. Users can even send files via most IM applications when a report, contract, or invoice needs to be quickly reviewed or approved.

Today, most organizations use the public IM clients provided free by America Online, Yahoo, and MSN. They are not ideal for the enterprise, however, because user IDs and passwords are submitted in plain text and are unencrypted. Anyone with a network sniffer can read information sent via public IM channels. To remove these risks, companies such as Groove Networks are developing secure IM applications aimed at the enterprise. These solutions will contain the features and functionality, such as stronger authentication and encryption, that corporate users need to exchange proprietary information companywide and with business partners outside the firewall.

IM is a compelling business tool, but IT managers must realize that many employees will be tempted to use it as a means of chatting with family and friends. If not properly controlled, IM can lead not only to a decrease in productivity but also to the inadvertent exposure of sensitive business information. Companies should implement policies detailing when and how IM can be used.

As IM technology develops, today's real-time chat capabilities will be combined with clear voice and video communications. When this technology is available, companies will be able to set up video conference calls without all the costs and equipment required today. Meanwhile, enterprise adoption will soon be spurred by more secure solutions.