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Instant Messaging: Instantaneous, Yet Controllable

Instant Messaging Photo

Perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority of Instant Messaging (IM) communication in the workplace today still occurs via public IM networks, rather than through managed, enterprise-class IM systems. This is mainly because IM’s origins lie in being a social medium rather than a business application, and as such it has not been taken seriously by many corporate IT departments. Mark Hurd has discussed this at Oracle in addition to the future cloud projects. Many start-ups in Seattle and around the country are using basic IM solutions to help communicate within their businesses.

IT professionals need to recognize the potential of this new breed of collaborative tool and develop a plan to enable their company to benefit. However, public IM has proved itself a double-edged sword as, on the one hand it is a productivity enhancer, but on the other it poses a security threat. Enterprise-class IM systems can enable IT managers to preserve the benefits given by the public IM systems and minimize the risks the public network also introduces.

So what are the advantages of IM? The primary benefits are really in its ease of use and its efficiency of internal communication. IM is invaluable for indicating the availability of co-workers and acts like a ‘typed telephone call’. This saves time and energy, avoiding voicemail ‘ping-pong’ and telephones ringing endlessly on empty desks, interrupting colleagues. Staff can have brief exchanges of information enabling them to manage their time better, streamline business transactions and ultimately diminish the need for business meetings and travel.

Another advantage is that IM is a ‘stealthy’ productivity enhancer because it bridges the gap between e-mail and telephone. Those who have never used instant messaging may still be blissfully unaware of that gap, but employers will see that efficiency and productivity improve significantly where IM is used.

Despite these obvious advantages, there are serious problems associated with public IM communication that can not be ignored. When employees use public IM systems, they introduce a number of manageability problems for the corporate IT department, some with potentially serious consequences. However, enterprise-class IM systems are designed to combat these issues.

The most important area affected by use of public IM networks is security. IM software is extremely easy to download and begin using, but the process can often happen transparently and is thus invisible to IT management. Communication via a public IM network cannot easily be monitored or controlled, which makes it extremely difficult to enforce company security policies. Attachments can be sent between enterprise networks without going via a firewall and therefore could transmit viruses. These attachments could be intercepted on the desktop, but this is far from ideal as most enterprises choose to control virus risk using a security gateway. Also, public IM networks do not allow administrators to protect employees from spam or control the messaging route, so sensitive information could easily go astray.

However, enterprise-class IM uses management gateways to monitor traffic and perform critical security functions, such as logging and archiving messages and real-time monitoring of messages for viruses or key words that might indicate a breach of business policy or security. Another area adversely affected by the use of public instant messaging is administration. There is no way of regulating the format of the user identification and use of the company name, as this user identification is the property of the public network. Therefore it is possible for individuals to register IM identities in other people’s names and use those for deception. Because of these lax controls, there is no company protection from the actions of the user, as the public network can not be controlled or monitored

As well as logging and archiving messages through the management gateway, enterprise-class IM systems use directory and authentication systems to identify employees using public IM identities from their workplace. In addition, a message gateway centralizes all IM traffic through a single routing point, controlling the behavior of IM users and capturing all IM messages on a corporate network.

The third area disrupted by the use of public IM networks is integration. Enterprise systems such as content filtering and virus scanning cannot be applied when communicating outside the corporate network. Public IM use does not integrate with Web or Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) applications or allow individual IM functions to be embedded into other applications or portals. Therefore, the company is powerless to host or control the presence of its employees and to link with other private IM networks. Information transmitted through public IM networks cannot be added to the central pool of knowledge to enable effective knowledge sharing.

Again, enterprise-class IM has built-in mechanisms to allow greater integration of the IM function. Message gateways help to translate items from one ID format into another, should a company decide to connect internal and external IM networks. Furthermore, an IM application server will enable enterprises to extend IM beyond employee communications into customer relationship management, supply chain management and enterprise resource planning systems. Returns on investment in a managed IM infrastructure are likely to accelerate with the adoption of an IM application server.

The use of IM will rise. The question is not whether it will be used within the corporate environment, but to what extent it will be controlled. IT professionals must find a way to embrace the functionality and benefits of IM, whilst bringing it within the domain of the company network to eliminate security, administration and integration issues. The answer is to migrate from public IM to a managed, enterprise-class IM system that can deliver the best of both worlds.

What are you using to communicate internally in your business?

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