If you think about it at all, you probably think of instant
messaging (IMing) as something teenagers do to chat up
friends online, whether across the street or across the
world. But IM has some buttoned-down business benefits
(as well as some risks) you may not be aware of.
21 million businesspeople worldwide use IM …
e-mail, in which you fire off messages to recipients
who read them when they next check their in box, with
IM you and your recipient have to be online at the same
time. But the messaging is instantaneous, or nearly
so, and rapidly interactive.
Many businesspeople use IM for collaboration. Among
other things, it lets you send spreadsheets or other
documents as attachments and do voice and video conferencing.
An estimated 21 million businesspeople worldwide use
IM, and though this figure is roughly 10 percent of
the total number of IM users, business use of IM is
expected to grow much more quickly over the next 3 years
than consumer use, according to figures e-mailed to
me by Robert Mahowald, research manager at IDC, a market
research firm in Framingham, Mass.
Half of the companies it surveyed reported that they've
either already deployed IM or plan to within the year,
according to Warren Sethachutkul, an analyst for Jupiter
Research, a market research firm in New York City.
But many people in the office, like teenagers, also
use IM for personal chats. Fully 58 percent of workplace
users, in fact, use IM primarily for personal rather
than business purposes, according to a new survey of
840 large and small U.S. businesses by the ePolicy Institute
and the American Management Association.
"Many office workers are sending inappropriate
and potentially damaging [IM] messages," says Nancy
Flynn, director of the ePolicy Institute, a consulting
firm in Columbus, Ohio (http://epolicyinstitute.com).
According to the same survey, 16 percent of office
workers are sending jokes, gossip, rumors, or disparaging
remarks; 9 percent are sending confidential information
about their company, clients, or co-workers; and 6 percent
are sending messages with romantic, sexual, or pornographic
As you might expect, this can expose a business to
unneeded, unwanted legal liability.
One reason for this is many employees are using free
IM programs, such as AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger,
and MSN Messenger, without management's knowledge or
the IT department's authorization, says Flynn, who has
written a new book, Instant Messaging Rules: A Business
Guide to Managing Policies, Security, and Legal Issues
for Safe IM Communication, published by AMACOM.
Another reason for the unnecessary legal exposure is
that even with many businesses that are aware of their
employees' use of IM, there's no official policy governing
IM use and content and no attempt to monitor, purge,
retain, and otherwise control IM use and risks.
In her book, Flynn enumerates 32 rules, or best practices,
that organizations should follow to make the most of
IM while minimizing the risks. She goes into detail
with each one. At her Web site, she lets you read in
full two sample chapters while also providing other
advice on workplace IM and e-mail policy and management.
Among Flynn's rules:
- Act now to uncover unauthorized instant
By this Flynn means testing your network for the presence
of consumer IM programs that employees have brought
in through the "back door" and informally
surveying employees to see what type of IM communication
they're engaged in. This will help you later draft
- Don't rush to ban instant messaging.
Some experts dispute IM's overall productivity benefits,
and banning it completely may seem like a simple and
effective solution to IM risk. But this may not be
so easy to enforce without Draconian policies.
- Don't rush to standardize instant messaging.
"Enterprise" IM programs, which are more
feature-laden than the free programs, restrict employees
to communicating with one another. Examples include
IBM's Lotus Workplace Messaging (http://www.lotus.com/workplacemessaging)
and Sun's Java System Instant Messaging (http://www.sun.com/software/products/instant_messaging).
Instead, Flynn recommends "gateway" IM programs,
which let employees use the popular free programs
but give employers control over this use. Major vendors
include Akonix Systems, Inc. (http://www.akonix.com),
FaceTime Communications, Inc. (http://www.facetime.com),
and IMlogic, Inc. (http://www.imlogic.com).
- Use instant messaging policy to provide
clear guidelines for employees' personal use.
Flynn is a big proponent of clear, unambiguous written
policies that spell out to employees the appropriate
use of IM and other communications technologies. Requiring
the use of businesslike language with all messages,
for instance, can help limit the organization's liability
risks regarding hostile work environment as well as
sexual harassment and discrimination charges.
Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight
Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be
reached at email@example.com