Investor's Business Daily


Internet & Technology

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Workplace Messaging Offers Rewards, Risks

BY RUSSELL SHAW

FOR INVESTOR'S BUSINESS DAILY

Until recently, instant messaging was widely seen as a way for young people to electronically chat with several of their friends at once.

But that's changing as instant messaging spreads among professionals in the workplace.

A study by the Radicati Group of Palo Alto, Calif., projects that out of the 582 billion instant messages transmitted this year, 9% will be sent by business users. Within four years, that number is expected to increase to 21%, with overall messages hitting 1,380 billion.

"The major value of instant messaging is its capacity for communication in real time," said Chris Saunders, managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com, a site devoted to the issue. "It is faster than e-mail, which is susceptible to inconveniences caused by delays from network traffic and spam filters."

Instant messaging is quicker than e-mail and works differently. All you need is an instant messaging program on your computer or cell phone.

If your recipients have their instant messaging programs open, you just type in your note and they will receive it in just a few seconds.

Several instant messaging programs are available for office use. The familiar AOL Instant Messenger, with more than 30 million users worldwide, is available with an enhanced AIM Enterprise Gateway package. This version offers such features as chat logging, auditing and local routing of messages. That means managers can better monitor and control employee IM use.

Yahoo Inc.'s (YHOO) Yahoo Business Messenger and Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) MSN Messenger Connect also take basic elements of familiar consumer-grade instant messaging software and add tools for business use.

These products are joined in the marketplace by IM products custom-built for corporate use. Formerly known as Lotus Sametime, IBM Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing service claims 9 million users.

Companies use instant messaging in a number of ways, says Steve Boom, vice president for Yahoo Enterprise Solutions, who spoke at the recent Instant Messaging Planet Conference & Expo. It's being used to rapidly schedule one-to-one meetings. It handles one-to-many queries. And it's handy for back-channel communications during sales calls.

"Instant messaging is . . . a better tool (than e-mail) to facilitate the collaborative and decision-making processes in a business," said Todd Tweedy, president of the Tweedy Group, a corporate instant messaging consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

Experts recommend that managers thinking of installing the technology consider several issues. Make sure the software is easy to use and secure.

Saunders notes that since many employees may already use the consumer-grade version of AOL Instant Messenger, they may be resistant to using a customized product.

"The problem can occur when an information technology staff decides to develop an IM strategy, but IM is already integrated into your business processes," he said. "Their contacts may all be on AIM, and they don't want to lose communication with those contacts."

IM security concerns are multifaceted. Experts point to at least four vulnerabilities, all of them manageable.

The risks of instant messaging are driven by a number of factors:

Instant messages are usually written as short, rapid responses. That means they can be more prone to spontaneous emotion than e-mail. In a worst-case scenario, unflattering gossip about an executive or client or a confidential business plan could be revealed.

"Most people don't think to use the same care as with e-mail," said Sara Radicati, chief executive of the Radicati Group. "We may tend to re-read e-mails before we send, but with IM we just send."

The best advice is to be prudent in what you say and how you say it.

"As with cell phones, there is etiquette with instant messages that one tends to learn quickly," said Mathew Schwartz, who writes the weekly Security Strategies newsletter for the Enterprise Systems Web site at esj.com.

Unlike enhanced services such as IBM Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing and the business-oriented programs from AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft, consumer-grade IM programs generally do not have built-in archiving functions. That means there's no record of messages.

Increasingly, regulations require firms to keep a record of their electronic communication. "IM is being used heavily in the financial sector, which is suddenly very careful about recording all communications," said Radicati.

In addition to enhanced IM products, several third-party offerings are available to add IM archiving and reporting capability to existing company networks. These include IMlogic IM Manager from IMlogic Inc. in Waltham, Mass., and Akonix L7 Enterprise from Akonix Systems Inc. in San Diego.

Because of the way instant messages are sent and received, they often travel outside the security firewall used to screen e-mail messages for viruses.

"Instant messaging is very difficult to block in a company using conventional means, such as firewalls, and there are generally no anti-virus applications monitoring instant messaging network communications on the server level," said Vincent Weafer, senior director for Security Response at Symantec Inc., a maker of anti-virus software. "This means an instant messaging worm can only be caught at the desktop level."

To address these concerns, anti-virus companies, including Symantec, are offering software plug-ins, which can be downloaded and installed in instant messaging programs.