From a Teenagers’ Toy to a Matter for the CIO

Instant messaging (IM) doesn’t need to be limited to private communication by teenagers, it can also be used to advantage in enterprises. This is revealed for example in the United States. As the consulting firm Radicati Group found, more than 85 percent of companies there use instant messaging along with the telephone and email for business communication. Most users (76 percent) primarily use IM because they need a quick answer from their colleagues, as a study from the providers of security solutions FaceTime revealed. 62 percent of those asked said that multi-tasking enabled them to work more productively and 33 percent found email simply too slow.
This trend could also make it to Germany, believes Berlin-based analysts Berlecon Research. “Like voice-over IP or mobile email, IM has the potential to enter the enterprise through the back door in Germany too,” explains analyst Philip Bohn. “The more young employees are used to communicating with these technologies in their private lives, the more they will expect to use it at work. And the network effect can always lead to these new communication tools spreading more and more quickly.”

Restraint in Germany

Most German enterprises do not yet see the need to follow this trend and include IM in their communication infrastructure. According to a survey conducted by Berlecon Research, around 17 percent of companies with more than 500 employees use this technology. Another five percent are planning to implement it. In contrast to the United States, then, the business world is less enthusiastic about the subject. Philip Bohn puts this down to the generally more conservative attitude of German companies with regard to new technologies. “Many first want to know whether there will be a ROI and classify the chat function more as private communication,” he believes.
But according to Bohn, many enterprises could benefit from some of the advantages of this communication technology if they look at it from a strategic perspective. “Of course it is difficult to express the direct consequences of the innovations in the communication technology sector in terms of percentages or euros. But some advantages are obvious.”

Communication support for global teams

The big advantage of IM is the directness of this informal communication medium. Appointments, for example, can be agreed very quickly. Instant messaging is also suitable for sending a colleague a document or a link to an interesting article and immediately getting feedback on it. So IM combines the opportunities of real-time communication offered by the telephone with rapid document exchange. “This direct communication is particularly important for enterprises in which teams often operate across locations, where the boost in efficiency is tangible,” the Berlecon analyst explains.
In addition, the Presence functionality of the clients shows whether the contact people are actually available. Bohn argues that IM thus helps to prevent fruitless attempts to make contact and avoid interruptions – for example in the “critical” project phase.
In addition to enabling users to communicate through text in real time, the conventional clients offer wider-reaching functionalities that increase process efficiency. For example, employees can exchange files that they are jointly working on, for example PowerPoint presentations or Word documents. They simply drag the document to the dialog window and send. With email, on the other hand, several steps are to send a document: Users need to open a new email document, enter the address and subject, write the text, attach the document, and finally send the email.
IM solutions therefore help to accelerate certain processes. According to Bohn, it makes sense to integrate a link for an IM chat window in customer relationship management or supply chain management solutions, for example. This makes it easier to contact a customer or supplier for quick inquiries, and the Presence function shows whether the person concerned was contacted.

Solutions for enterprises

Enterprises that want to introduce instant messaging are well advised to develop a strategy for it and define who should use IM and for what. IM applications for enterprises are available as stand-alone programs or alternatively as solutions that are integrated in the IT and communications infrastructure as part of a unified communication strategy. An IM session can then be launched from Outlook, but also from the ERP application, for example. According to Bohn, stand-alone programs are certainly sufficient for smaller companies. They run on the central server, and the clients can be implemented on the employees’ work stations quite straightforwardly.
However, the larger an enterprise is, the more important it is to ensure support from the infrastructure. Companies should first identify the area in which there is a need for IM and introduce a pilot installation there, explains Bohn. This can then be extended across the whole enterprise step by step. Second, he says it is necessary to clarify whether the provider of the telecommunication infrastructure offers an IM solution that can be integrated, or whether it makes sense to switch to a new telecommunication infrastructure. If an enterprise is already using voice-over IP (VoIP) for telephony, no additional middleware is necessary. As a rule, additional investments in hardware are not needed either.
Instant messaging applications can be implemented either gradually in individual departments or immediately across the whole enterprise. The latter option is preferable for enterprises that simultaneously want to switch to internet telephony.

No major security risk

According to Bohn, the subject of security is just as important for instant messaging as for other technologies. In addition to a secure firewall, virus protection programs, and the encryption of content, enterprises should establish binding directives for how employees are to IM. Employees should be informed about the special risks of IM: IM applications, like email, can be the point of entry for viruses and malware. There is also the danger that employees may knowingly or unwittingly spread documents that are not intended for external use. There are also special security solutions for instant messaging programs, for example IMAuditor from FaceTime. In the best case scenario, though, security solutions are already part of the IM solution, as is the case with Lotus SameTime, for example.
Bohn does not see instant messaging as a replacement for emails, letters, or telephone calls, but rather as a supplement to the communication infrastructure. It is therefore advisable for an enterprise to look into the systematic use of this technology in good time and to develop a strategy for how it can be used effectively and securely. In the best case, IM programs suitable for use in the enterprise can be connected to other applications, such as Outlook, Office applications, Lotus Notes, CRM and ERP solutions, as well as VoIP, to form a uniform communication solution, says Bohn. And according to him, a not insignificant factor is that a modern communication infrastructure makes the enterprise attractive for “Generation Y” high potentials.

Sabine Höfler