When brokers at a San Francisco merchant bank, Thomas Weisel Partners, were cut off from their instant messaging service recently, they complained loudly. It's a scenario that's becoming increasingly common in enterprises, as IM security risks grow. But, luckily for the bank's workers, their IT department found a way to reconnect them with their customers in a way that met everyone's needs.
The firm cut off IM access after learning how one broker's IM comments about PeopleSoft Inc. were printed in The New York Times, said Beth Cannon, chief technology officer with Thomas Weisel.
The firm did not want one of its own brokers to draw such negative attention, so IM communications were banned. But because of employee complaints and communication headaches following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, she said, the company saw the value in instant messaging.
There are many proprietary products on the market that allow employees to instant message one another behind the firewall in a secure environment in which conversations are logged, but that approach would not work for Cannon. The firm needed a product that would allow brokers to communicate over a number of different free instant messaging clients, including those from AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo, which its brokers were already using to communicate with customers.
"It is not our place to tell our customers what instant messaging client to use," Cannon said.
Thomas Weisel also needed a product that would allow it to comply with SEC regulations, which require that communication between brokers and customers be logged. The compliance department needed communications to be audited for prohibited communications, and the IT department wanted to tie buddy names to users' identities.
That is a tall order for what are essentially free consumer tools, but it is a requirement that is growing, particularly for financial services firms, said Robert Mahowald, research manager with International Data Corp., the Framingham, Mass., research firm. In a competitive business environment, companies don't want to make it difficult for their customers to contact them, he said, and it is increasingly common for brokers to use three or even four IM clients at a time.
The growing business use of free consumer IM clients has pushed the three leading providers of free IM clients into the enterprise market. America Online Inc. launched its business-class service last fall; Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. both have business-oriented services planned for this spring. IBM Corp.'s Lotus Sametime, recently renamed Lotus Instant Messaging, the market leader in internal business-class instant messaging, is now compatible with AOL's consumer and business clients.
But since Cannon needed a product that would work with all three of the IM services, her search eventually led her to FaceTime Communications Inc., the Foster City, Calif., instant messaging services vendor.
FaceTime's gateway is compatible with all three free IM services. All IM traffic is routed through the gateway, where it is also logged. The product is compatible with iLumin Software Services Inc.'s Assentor Compliance platform, which Weisel uses to scan broker communication for forbidden language. It also allowed Cannon to tie IM buddy names to a user's identity.
Now, whenever anyone at the company wants to sign up for instant messaging, they must do it through Cannon's department. Since all IM traffic moves through the gateway, employees will not be able to use IM clients that aren't registered with IT. Best of all, Weisel's customers never realized that anything had changed with the new system.
FaceTime, which licenses AOL's technology, also provides the gateway for AOL's business-class IM product, said Glen Vondrick, president and CEO of Facetime. He said the future of instant messaging can be compared to that of the telephone: the AOLs of the world are the carriers and the Facetimes are the technology providers like Lucent.
FaceTime's five years in this market have paid off. It is now the market leader in the enterprise IM space, said Mahowald, and the company is one of the top five revenue earners in the entire IM market, which includes AOL.
But this kind of freewheeling instant messaging access is not for everyone, cautioned Ron Batchelder, president of Relevance, a Trimble, Conn. instant messaging consulting firm.
For most companies, the priority has been to secure IM communications between employees, a scenario that is compatible with Lotus' product. Many financial services companies are very conservative and simply block instant messaging communications at the firewall, he said. Those individuals who want access need to prove their case.
It's hard to argue against the convenience of using IM for business-to-business and business-to-consumer communications, but can it be a mechanism with the kind of management enterprises need to conduct secure transactions? In business-to-consumer interactions it can make sense, said Batchelder, but companies need to make sure they are properly staffed to manage IM and ensure that the cost provides a direct benefit.
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