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Instant messaging to push the workplace envelope

In five years, analysts forecast, there will be 349 million business IM accounts and new embedded IM capabilities. Do you have your company's IM environment ready?

Lee Blackmore didn't introduce instant messaging to his company; his users did.

The director of information technology for St. Louis-based Stifel Nicolaus, a financial services firm with 83 branches across the Midwest, noticed employees sharing sports scores and swapping recipes via IM -- not to mention discussing clients and their portfolios.

Largely because of the regulations that plague Blackmore's industry, he realized he'd better set guidelines for his company's use of IM. In spring 2002, Stifel formulated an IM policy, banning the majority of its 1,500 workers from using IM.

Stifel also deployed new software to make sure the consumer-grade versions of instant messaging used by the 220 employees that kept their IM privileges -- mostly brokers, their assistants and help-desk staff -- meet strict workplace standards.

"From a technology side, we have to make sure we're keeping ahead of the curve from a security and archiving perspective," Blackmore said.

Instant messaging has obviously evolved from its roots as a facilitator of teenager chats to a vital workplace collaboration tool. A growing number of businesses now depend on IM to communicate and collaborate internally, as well as with customers and partners.

And industry insiders say IM's business evolution is far from over.

That's why they urge companies to follow Blackmore's lead and take control of workplace IM environments before they spiral out of control.

Michael Osterman, president and founder of Osterman Research in Black Diamond, Wash., said that gaining a foothold is partly a matter of policy, partly of technology.

Osterman said that most organizations haven't standardized on a single IM platform and instead are taking "a hybrid approach," using a variety of tools selected by individual end users. That's why, once a company sets its IM policy, it may want to turn to a third-party IM provider to add infrastructure extensions that streamline IM usage in the workplace.

Several vendors are filling this need. Stifel deployed Waltham, Mass.-based IMlogic Inc.'s flagship IM Manager tool. Like most competing products, it offers technology for IM management (monitoring who's using IM and when), security (scanning for viruses, authenticating users and mapping IM names to a corporate directory) and compliance (logging and archiving conversations, as well as allowing for the searching and annotating of archives).

Many industries, according to Osterman, find that federal regulations make the logging and archiving capabilities of this third-party software the most compelling -- and necessary -- IM add-ons.

Using IM Manager, Stifel now stores its IM conversations in a Microsoft Corp. SQL Server database, exports them as e-mails, and finally saves them in an e-mail archiving system.

"There's not that much data" coming from IM, said Jon Sakoda, IMlogic's vice president of products. "From a storage perspective, there's no need for a huge EMC SAN."

Sakoda said that IM's benefits aren't limited to productivity gains. IM can also be a bandwidth boon, he said. Studies have shown that, as IM's use increases, e-mail tails off. Plus, IMs are typically short statements and seldom include attachments. Sakoda estimates that the average e-mail size is 50 kilobits, while the average IM string is a mere 50 bits.

Few expect IM to pose much of a storage challenge, even as instant messaging archives swell. And all indications are that they certainly will swell.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based messaging research firm Radicati Group estimates that corporate instant messaging accounts will increase from today's 60 million to 349 million by 2007.

Glen Vondrick, CEO of Foster City, Calif.-based FaceTime Communications Inc., whose customers include Bank of America Corp. and Wachovia Securities, said companies today are primarily worried about managing and controlling IM. A few years down the road, he said, they'll be focused on leveraging it.

Vondrick said vendors are already working on extending instant messaging to other business areas to help companies become "real-time enterprises." The next version of the Lotus Notes client, due out this month, features tight integration with Lotus Instant Messaging, letting users see whether their colleagues are online and initiate chats from within the e-mail program. Next month, Microsoft is scheduled to release its Office Live Communications Server with embedded IM capabilities within its Microsoft Office suite.

That's just the beginning. Ultimately, IM will show up in workflow, customer service, support, help desk and supply chain applications. Enterprise software firm PeopleSoft Inc. has already added IM to its software suite. As providers hash out IM standards, expect more vendors to incorporate built-in IM support.

The question for CIOs, according to Vondrick, is, "How do they make their organizations competitive using information and speed?"

That's something Stifel's Blackmore is already pondering. He knows that some of his company's more tech-savvy clients will soon want to ask brokers questions via IM, and that he'll likely have to devise a technology game plan. Still, for now, he's just glad to have his current IM situation under control.

"I would be more concerned about [instant messaging] if we had it open to the whole company and had let it run rampant," he said.


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