If you're a CIO or IT manager and don't think some employees have brought instant messaging (IM) into your network, you may want to think again.

"IT managers are in denial," said Christopher Dean, senior vice president of marketing and business development for FaceTime Communications, a Foster City, Calif.-based company that specializes in IM platforms and IM monitoring for enterprise customers. "They do not know whether instant messaging is being used, and they'd like to pretend it's not. But we've got all the statistics to say, 'Hey, it's being used whether you know it or not, and by the way, you don't have the tools to detect it, or control or administer it.'"

At least some of the corporate world has taken the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach and decided if employees are going to use IM, with or without permission, use should be managed and logged.

"There are a lot of benefits associated with instant messaging," Dean said. "It is a new collaboration medium and tool that has incredible adoption, on the consumer side and now in business. In North America, about one in four employees is using IM today."

The growing adoption rate also generates legitimacy for IM as an enterprise tool. Much like Internet connectivity in the workplace -- initially viewed as a time waster -- IM has become a valuable application for many employees. Dean said IM has passed the disruptive technology stage and is hitting the second stage.

"We're just entering the central management and control stage," he said. "Innovators in the public sector are using it now, and there's quite a number of examples of that. Over the next 12 months, we're going to see much more aggressive use."

Just how aggressively government adopts IM as a business tool will likely depend on how well vendors differentiate their enterprise-class IM products from consumer-grade IM clients, and how well security questions are answered. The thought of employees using simple, consumer-grade IM clients with little security protection gives many government CIOs a serious case of heartburn. That's one reason states like Montana forbid IM use on the state's network.

Unlike widely used consumer IM clients, enterprise-grade IM programs offer end-to-end encryption, and have been used by financial-services firms for years to allay security fears and properly capture, monitor and archive IM conversations.

Going Public

The public sector has deployed IM-like applications, though on a different scale than the private sector.

Virginia's "Live Help" service debuted in August 2001. Visitors click an icon to begin a live, online chat with a customer service representative from VIPNet, which manages the state's Web portal. Live Help allows VIPNet representatives to give portal visitors the information or service they seek in real time. Representatives also can use push technology to point users' Web browsers directly to the desired Web site. The commonwealth worked with LivePerson, an application service provider (ASP) specializing in technology for real-time sales, customer service and marketing solutions for companies doing business online.

At the federal level, the Army, Navy and Air Force use enterprise IM for secure messaging. In late 2002, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rolled out an IM service for first responders nationwide. FEMA and the DHS use the service to send IMs to police, fire and public health officials about natural or man-made disasters, and first responders can exchange information with each other.

To obtain the IM application, first responders visit DisasterHelp.gov. FEMA created the portal to help coordinate emergency workers and provide first responders with access to needed tools.

"We found first responders wanted two things. They wanted some sort of map capability, and some way they could have secure messaging among a

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor