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Instant messaging – a useful business tool or an unwelcome distraction?

Our panel

David Beesley is managing director of Network Defence, an IT security consultancy.

Stephen Waddington is managing director of Rainier PR, which employs about 30 people.

Simon Meredith is a freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to Living IT.

John Stanners is managing director of Gordano, an IM software provider.

Jonathan Elliott is global operations manager, Xerox Global Services UK.

Meredith: “What’s the appeal of instant messaging?”

Elliott: “IM’s main strength is its immediacy. If people can get an instant answer they are far more likely to ask for input on projects that they are working on. Another advantage of IM is that it frees up email for customer communication. And with an increasing number of people choosing to work from home, I believe that IM will play an even more important role in the future. It is useful for maintaining contact with off-site workers, and for project work for teams that are based in different locations.”

Waddington: “We have made use of instant messaging as a communications tool between staff and clients for over four years. We implemented it in order to improve efficiency of communication between staff, both on a work related basis and in a social sense. Whilst it’s hardly the perfect business tool, IM offers instantaneous communication irrespective of location and the ability to have an informal conversation without interrupting workflow – the solution when face-to-face communication is not possible.”

Meredith: “Aren’t users more likely to go into ‘chat mode’ a bit too often with IM?”

Waddington: “It is no surprise that IM is used for purposes other than work, which we encourage to some extent because we like our staff to feel that we trust them and it is no more harmful than having a gossip by the water cooler.”

Elliot: “Our IM system only allows users to communicate with people that have Xerox email addresses, so it encourages employee-to-employee interaction. I can see how it could be abused and because of its immediacy, perhaps even more so than email. Like mobile phones, email and land-lines, IM has to be used responsibly. If we found that someone wasn’t doing their job because they were constantly on IM then, clearly, that would be a problem. But I think that most people know where the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable use is.”

Stanners: “Business IM should be a closed system and should be as un-intrusive as possible. If it is closed, then the only people who can use it are the employees. If the IM is not a closed system, then it is vital to have policy in place especially regarding file attachments and virus threats. If instant messaging does not detract from the users’ real task and integrates with other business tools, such as mail clients and calendars, then it can be used as a serious business tool. Customer contact via IM integrated into a web site can be a very useful feature.”

Meredith: “What about the security aspects of IM? I don’t think a lot of people are very aware of the dangers there are and small businesses could be especially vulnerable I’d have thought.”

Beesley: “The current IM situation mirrors that of email back in the mid-90s – a semi-work activity which offers background chat capability. Unfortunately, while IM usage is redolent of the low-security days of the Internet from a decade ago, IM security threats are bang up to date. Spim (spam over IM) is on the rise, predicted to rise to 1.2 billion messages this year across both consumer and corporate IM platforms. And there are over 200 IM worms and 700 plus Trojans known, with the number of malware threats growing by 50% each month in 2005.”

Meredith: “So you are going to need to make sure that your perimeter security is very good indeed before you use IM in the business. A lot of people might justifiably ask “what’s wrong with using the telephone or email? What else would IM give us?”

Elliott: “If you’re writing a report, there’s no better way to get the thoughts of a group of five people instantly. You already know that they will respond as you can see that they are online. It saves you making five phone calls, or sending an email that people may or may not respond to. If I’m trying to get hold of a colleague in the US, the IM buddy list shows me the moment they arrive at their desk and are online.”

Waddington: “It is less formal than

e-mail and therefore quicker, and is more versatile than using the telephone. It also allows for some leeway with regards to the working practices of staff, letting them continue working as normal when they may be at home waiting for the plumber to arrive or sitting in a broken down train.”

Elliott: “IM encourages people to multitask from their PCs and is not as disruptive to the thought process as email or a telephone call. If you phone someone you completely divert their attention from what they were doing. Email isn’t in real-time – there can be a delay of several minutes, or more, so responses tend to be more laboured and frustrating for all concerned. IM is something akin to a group discussion in the corner of your screen. It is different, but complementary to the phone and email – they all have a place.”