Face-off: Instant messaging in the enterprise

Is instant messaging at work a matter of pure convenience, or pure danger? Associate site editor Kara Gattine says IM use can improve productivity and make communication easier, but site editor Margaret Rouse says IM applications are distracting and open your network up to attack.

Face-off Is instant messaging at work a matter of pure convenience, or pure danger? Do its advantages outweigh its costs, monetarily and otherwise?

Associate site editor Kara Gattine says IM use can improve productivity and make communication easier, but site editor Margaret Rouse says IM applications are distracting and open your network up to attack.

Go ahead, kill the (instant) messenger

By Margaret Rouse, Site Editor

A former coworker of mine used to have a sign taped to the front of his desk. It read, "Failure to plan properly on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part."

That pretty much sums up the way I feel about instant messaging at work. What could anyone possibly have to say to me that's so important he couldn't stick a little "urgent" icon on an e-mail or pick up the telephone?

I know my co-workers like sending instant messages. I can see how it's convenient for them to IM me with a quick question. It's just not always convenient for me to have to stop what I'm doing to provide an immediate answer. In fact, sending instant messages is a little like playing the harmonica. It's only fun if you're the one doing it. Even if I try to ignore an IM after it flies in, the minimized message sits on my taskbar, blinking incessantly until I look at it. We've made such great strides with the telephone. We finally have answering machines and voice mail to pick up calls when we're busy. Why do we want to go backward?

In addition to preventing me from managing my own time, IMs can lead to misunderstandings. If I have a couple of IM windows open at the same time and accidentally reply to the wrong person, I can single-handedly confuse everyone I'm talking to in the space of about 30 seconds.

Unlike an e-mail message, which allows me to go back and confirm the details of a correspondence later on, an IM conversation vanishes once I close the window. Yes, I know I can save an IM conversation, but if you're going to ask me to do that, why not just send me an e-mail in the first place?

Another argument I've heard is that instant messaging can save a company money on long-distance phone bills. That may be the case until voice over IP (VoIP) takes hold, but I have to ask, what about the real price we pay when we encourage IM use in the workplace? I think the price is too high, and I'm not alone.

According to a survey by Gartner Inc., 58% of network security managers named instant messaging as the biggest security risk to their enterprises. Is it any wonder? Instant messaging is the Wild West of the Internet; many seem to be in love with its mystique, but there are few laws or standards to govern it.

Even big-name companies that have seen an opportunity to make money off of enterprise-class IM software can't agree on one standard. You've got Microsoft, IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc. and Novell Inc. backing SIMPLE, while Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp. and Sony Corp. are backing XMPP. In the meantime, the lack of interoperability among IM services encourages people to have two or three clients running on one machine.

The old "block 'em at the port" method doesn't work anymore, either. Most public IM services are designed to prevent port-blocking security measures and will automatically attempt to connect to non-blocked port numbers. So IM is an obvious choice for someone who wants to crack your network; the easiest way to hitch a ride in is through instant messaging.

And then there's spam. Have you visited a chat room lately? The last time I visited an IT chat room, I was immediately bombarded with spam IMs. As e-mail filters get more sophisticated, spammers are turning to IM to deliver their messages.

What's your opinion?

Do you agree? Is IM more trouble than it's worth? Sound off, and tell us what you think.

Scariest of all, though, is the report from Symantec Corp., which estimates that a computer worm transmitted through IM programs could, in theory, infect half a million computers within 30 seconds. That's right, folks: 30 seconds.

So, is instant messaging worth the price? No way. Whether you pay the price financially, by purchasing an expensive enterprise IM system, or pay the price security-wise, because your employees are using unauthorized IM clients that don't have enterprise-class protections -- perhaps instead of your expensive enterprise IM system -- you're not getting much value in return. Instead, I have a suggestion: Let them use e-mail.

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Don't kill the instant messenger

By Kara Gattine, Associate Site Editor

When our news director e-mailed me about this assignment, I quickly shot him an instant message that said, "Assign me the pros; give Peggy the cons." Guess what? Because of the immediacy of instant messaging, I was able to bag the easier assignment. Sorry, Peggy!

You see, IM is my work lifeline, and I couldn't possibly perform my duties without it. The best way for me to justify IM to someone who doesn't see its usefulness is to offer a glimpse into my workday.

My editor and I work remotely, and we start each morning (usually by 7 a.m.) with a courteous IM, asking how the other's evening was, and confirming our first order of business for the day. We continually IM each other and, during the course of a day, that could be as often as every 15 minutes or so. IM provides us with the opportunity to ask quick questions and get quick responses without the clutter of e-mail, and without the expense of a toll call. So we communicate for free, quickly and easily.

And we're obviously not alone. As reported last year by EarthWeb, a Nemertes Research survey found that 73% of organizations said they'd implemented IM or plan to within the next year. Further, as SearchDomino.com reported, the Radicati Group expects the number of corporate IM accounts to jump from 60 million in 2003 to 349 million by 2007. Radicati also estimated that, by 2007, the number of corporate IMs sent daily would rise to a whopping 290 billion, up from an estimated 52 billion last year. Would growth like this be possible if IM weren't incredibly useful to millions of workers around the world?

Presence awareness is another benefit of IM. At any given time, I know instantly who in my department is online and available for communication. I can have multiple conversations going at the same time, which is impossible to do over the phone. I can step away from my desk and use an away sign to explain where I am and what I'm doing. That way, if someone needs me, it's apparent whether I can be reached by phone. If I'm in a meeting, I can share that information in my away message, along with the time when I'll return. It's much more convenient than forcing people to leave a trail of voice mails or e-mails whenever I step away from the computer.

I can also say, with enthusiasm, that IM encourages team building and team communication. IM provides my co-workers and me with immediate connections to one another. Being able to communicate in real time without a hassle makes me want to communicate more.

Some would say that IM makes it easier to waste time socializing, but conscientious employees will not waste valuable work time with excessive personal communication. Lazy workers might, but what are they doing working for you anyway? Technology now allows us to monitor instant messages easily, and to prevent employees from sending messages to anyone other than fellow employees. I have no doubt that, once the novelty of a new IM application wears off, you'll find that your employees won't use IM for needless personal conversations.

For more information

View our webcast on IM in the enterprise.

Check out our Face-off on the Can Spam Act.

Even if your organization must adhere to strict security and privacy guidelines, that's not necessarily a reason to avoid IM. Appropriate security measures are available, and you can select the features you want depending on your industry and the number of employees you have. Health care and financial organizations, for example, must follow strict legal storage and archiving regulations, but IM can coexist with those requirements. A quick Google search returns a list of the leaders in the corporate IM industry, and many of those vendors specialize in meeting the specific privacy and security guidelines of various industries.

With proper care, planning and management, IM can improve productivity and make communication easier. Like all network applications, the potential for employee misuse and abuse exists. But, with the proper safeguards, IM will make employees so much more productive, they'll soon wonder how they ever survived without it.

What's your take? Is IM essential to the enterprise? Sound off, and let us know.

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