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How to use instant messaging for business

Essentially, instant messaging is the text version of a phone call. It enables two users to set up a point-to-point text connection that appears as a box on their screen. You just key in what you want to say and it appears on the screen at the other end. It can be really useful when there is a need to exchange digital information quickly, when talking is difficult or if there are problems with normal email.

Or when you simply need to get instant collaboration, such as when you are actually on a conference call with a remote colleague – IM gives you a private and separate line of real-time contact. You don’t get the same delay as you would with normal email as messages go straight through, they don’t have to be downloaded from a mail server.

IM can be used simply to see if someone is at their desk and tied-up or free. ‘Can I call you now’ – ‘Give me 10 minutes’ might be useful quick and simple exchange using IM. It’s like putting your head around the door – digitally. It is also useful for quick-fire research and responses from busy individuals who could do without the distraction and de-rigueur pleasantries of a phone call – albeit a quick one.

If you need to make long-distance calls, it can be a useful and very cost-effective substitute for talking on the land line. You could even have three or four people on a private IM chat, all at remote locations.

Getting the best from IM – top tips

Keep it simple and get to the point – IM is useful when you need a swift exchange but not for more complex ideas that require a bit more thought. Encourage the use of email for more formal communications and get users to log-off once they have finished using IM. You can also dispense with the usual polite how-are-you and so on with IM. It is quick and simple – that’s the main advantage.

Cover IM in your usage policy – your business should have a policy for the use of email and web use, even if it is only very basic. For example, you may have made it clear that people are not allowed to use online connections for personal use, such as booking holidays or to communicate with personal friends.You should have rules for IM as well.

Don’t share sensitive or personal information – one of the things you should make clear to staff is that IM is not to be used to send or receive confidential or sensitive information. There are too many potential legal and security pitfalls.

Companies have been sued for spreading false information via IM, which is very difficult to control. Normal email should be used for anything potentially sensitive. It’s a misconception that IMs can’t be saved – they can! All it takes is a simple cut and paste operation. If you can’t say something nice – don’t say anything at all! It is also advisable not to send personal information via IM.

Use good anti-virus software – IM services will allow you to transfer files with your messages and as they set up a point-to-point link, it is not as easy for the firewall to pick up anything suspicious. You need good up-to-date anti-virus software to protect you from the danger of anything slipping in through the small back-doors that IM can leave open here. If in doubt, stop IM being used for file transfer.