IM in the Enterprise


I'm a fan of instant messaging (IM) in my personal and my corporate life. I've used IM as a tool for getting my work done for years and love the face-to-face style conversation with people who aren't right next door. Sure, there's the phone, but phone calls have more overhead than IM. If I've got a lot to say, I use the phone. When I just have a quick question, or want a low intensity conversation, I fire up iChat (OS X's AOL compatible chat tool). I've seen IM used in some interesting ways:

  • Business colleagues use IM it for back channel communications during conference calls. In today‚s high-speed business culture, meetings frequently happen on the telephone with most meeting participants in different locations and a teleconferencing bridge serving as the modern-day answer to the conference room. IM is a great way to carry on important side-bar conversations that used to happen in whispers or passed notes.
  • Geographically dispersed workgroups use IM to create a sense of workplace community and even coordinate complex tasks by remote teams. At iMALL, our engineers used IM to roll code into production in the middle of the night when the service was lightly loaded. Rather than everyone coming into work, they all gathered in their bathrobes and slippers in front of their computer screens and coordinated a difficult task using IM.

Even with my cheerleading there are things that concern me about IM when I put my CIO hat on:

  • Recreational-class IM systems are not tied into corporate directories, so its hard to IM someone who I'm not already in contact with.
  • IM conversations are not encrypted and may travel outside the corporate firewall.
  • Easy file sharing can be just one more, unprotected avenue for viruses to invade the workplace.
  • Some conversations need to be logged for regulatory compliance.

There are ways to solve these problems. One method is to provide an in-house IM solution. Groupwise, for example, has a built-in IM solution, although I've not used it and don't know how well it works. The State of Utah is using it, maybe someone can comment below on how well it works. The problem with an in-house system is that it probably isn't compatible with your customer's and partner's systems and some of the most important IM conversations are those your employees have with customers and partners.

Another solution is to try to fix the problems in AOL, MSN, ICQ, and Yahoo!'s offerings with a third party solution. One such solution is L7 from Akonix. I haven't reviewed this product, so I can't comment on how well, or even if, it works. The company literature says that L7 logs IM traffic, selectively stops file sharing, and secures conversations between parties. Sounds like it would be worth looking into.