Instant messaging (IM), which allows a person to have a real-time, message exchange via the internet, is emerging as the next big communications medium for business.
Research carried out for Microsoft by Vanson Bourne found that it has become a mainstream method of communication at 50% of businesses, with 70% of respondents saying it is useful for helping to make quick decisions at work.
But IM presents a dilemma for HR, much like in the early days of e-mail and internet usage: how can employers guard against employees indulging in lengthy private exchanges, while at the same time ensuring that it doesn’t stifle the use of a potentially powerful business tool?
In addition, there are challenges around security and compliance. Worryingly for employers, the Microsoft research shows that 71% of those using IM are doing so via software they have downloaded and installed themselves rather than as part of company-wide policy.
But despite these challenges, many organisations could not do without IM. “We no longer work in the same offices or countries,” says Neil Laver, head of sales and marketing, Unified Communications Group, Microsoft UK. “Instant messaging’s value is in its ‘presence’. You can find out instantly whether someone is available, much more so than you can with the telephone or e-mail. It speeds up the way we work.”
And while the most common IM services come from big consumer brands, including AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger, they have a real business use, if approached in the right way.
Get it right
The first step to properly implementing IM is to hold an open, cross-functional meeting to discuss the impact of instant messaging on the organisation, advises Johanna Severinsson, director of marketing at web filtering and security company Websense.
“Once you’ve done this, employees should be educated in the potential pitfalls,” she says. “Everyone knows the benefits of IM – it’s a powerful communications tool, but inadvertent use can let in viruses and worms.
“Allowing attachments to come in, for instance, can be like opening a tunnel into your organisation. One of the things we advise is never to send attachments by IM but to use the corporate e-mail system for this.”
Other key issues to discuss include whether IM will be permitted for private use and how this will be monitored. To only allow access to the service at certain times a day (as some organisations do with internet use for online shopping) detracts from the true value of IM, so a time quota may be more appropriate.
The next stage is to decide what IM software and tools will be permitted and how sophisticated these should be when it comes to areas such as security and compliance. This will depend on the nature of the business, says Severinsson.
“Financial institutions, for instance, have to show an audit trail, and we find that many of these are leading the way with the [security] tools that they use,” she says.
It is also worth investing in tools to monitor usage and to ensure employees abide with your IM policy once up and running.
“Don’t assume that because you’ve talked about the policy in an open meeting it will happen,” Severinsson says. “You need software in place to help you that is sophisticated enough to block attachments, for instance.”
As the use of IM grows within organisations, more and more will turn to ‘enterprise-level’ IM tools that integrate instant messaging with their other communications technologies, such as e-mail and centralised diary systems.
Global IT services company Unisys, for example, was an early adopter of instant messaging and migrated to a Microsoft corporate package in 2001.
Even though no internal announcement was made about the new system, 7,000 employees globally hooked up. As demand continued to grow, Unisys felt it needed a system that offered tighter security features and so decided to implement Microsoft Office’s Live Communications Server 2005.
“As more of our people started to use instant messaging to communicate with Unisys colleagues at different sites, we began to worry about sending clear-text [unencrypted] messages across the internet,” says Kenneth Spacht, senior business analyst at Unisys. “We need to protect our confidential information and the new system helps us to do that.”
Spacht says that IM is part of everyday life at Unisys and describes it as a ‘business-critical’ application. The next stage is for the company to extend the service to remote and virtual workers.
Not everyone agrees, however. Some of IM’s critics worry that it will contribute to the information overload that staff already suffer from in the form of e-mail, and act as a time stealer rather than a helpful tool.
Laver argues the opposite. Software allows you to say ‘no’ to the communication, he says, adding that users should find once they embed IM’s use into their daily work, it actually reduces the number of e-mails in their inbox. His own e-mail volume has reduced by 40%, he says.
Until now, growth in IM has been from the bottom up, with users opting for IM themselves rather than through a top-down strategy. HR’s role will be crucial in establishing usage policies in conjunction with IT and line managers.
HR is also increasingly getting involved in choosing the software, according to Severinsson. “It’s rare but it is starting to happen,” she says.
Now, that’s what we call progress.
Instant messaging etiquette
- If initiating the instant message (IM), state the topic and ask the other person if they have time to instant message with you.
- A terse response, such as ‘in a meeting’ or ‘talk later’, is merely a concise way of letting you know they are currently unavailable.
- Emoticons – graphical representations of facial expressions – can help to provide context and support the more natural form of communication.
- If a contact has set their status as ‘busy’, respect this and do not send them a message unless it is urgent.
- Make sure the sound accompanying an IM does not disturb others.
- As with e-mail, using capital letters is the equivalent of shouting, so avoid them.
- Don’t invite someone to join a multi-party IM session without asking the others first.
Source: Microsoft’s Enterprise Instant Messaging Etiquette Guide