Instant Messaging Goes Legit

No longer simply a toy for teenagers who like to carry on five conversations at once, IM is fulfilling viable business needs in the corporate enterprise.

by / September 3, 2003
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 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 group of people," said Mark Zimmerman, FEMA's project manager of the Disaster Management E-Government initiative. "The IM component is a pretty popular feature. You don't want to keep things from the public, but you want to keep your conversations with your fellow counties or whoever else to a small group of people. IM provides, essentially, a way to control certain information among those that really have a need to know, and then through the portal, a way to broadcast to a wider audience."

Once a first responder has been verified by FEMA, he or she can access the IM application's tools -- a chat utility, discussion-thread (similar to a threaded newsgroup) and a collaboration center with a virtual hard drive that allows first responders to work on files in real time. First responders can share any type of file -- PDFs, maps, Word documents, spreadsheets, etc. -- through the collaboration center and chat tool. In addition, FEMA said IM communications are safeguarded with 128-bit, end-to-end encryption.

At press time, approximately 8,000 verified first responders were using the IM applications, according to FEMA. To validate first responders, FEMA needs the first responder's first name, last name and e-mail address, but personnel with .gov, .mil or .us e-mail addresses are automatically verified. First responders also can be verified through nongovernmental associations, such as firefighter associations, or a county emergency management officer.

FEMA essentially acts as an ASP, hosting the IM application's back-end work as first responders use the collaboration center or chat utility. Zimmerman said this is critical because FEMA understands both the wide range and age of technology infrastructures at first responder command centers.

FEMA purchased its IM package from Bantu Inc., which has carved a niche for itself in the federal market.

"What's critical is understanding the community you're trying to reach," Zimmerman said. "The responder community, as a whole, is IT inverse. They're not IT professionals, so the application has to be easy and intuitive."

Despite not launching an intensive marketing campaign to educate first responders about IM availability, he said, FEMA is pleased with the adoption rate.

Assessing IM
Though IM has demonstrated its use in the public sector, it is still fighting an image problem.

"IM today is where e-mail was in 1994 or '95," said Michael Osterman, president and founder of Osterman Research, a market research firm specializing in the messaging market. "A lot of people in the early days of e-mail said, 'Why do we really need e-mail? We've got telephones.' Today, a lot of people say, 'Why do we really need IM? We have e-mail and telephones.'

"A lot of people see IM as fairly redundant," Osterman continued. "They see it as a potential time waster because a lot of conversations are on the order of, 'Hey Bill, are you ready for lunch?' To some extent, there's a cultural issue with IM -- the corporate culture really dictates whether an organization is going to adopt it readily, or be reluctant or opposed to IM."

The one dramatic difference between private- and public-sector culture is government has more to lose, he said. A technology mistake or miscue can have serious public-policy ramifications.

Still, governments could save costs in several areas by deploying IM, he said.

"If you look at a traditional call center environment, most of that is an individual on the other end of a telephone line," he said. "If you can replace that telephone with an IM interface, that representative goes from handling one customer at a time to maybe handling four, six or 12 customers at a time, because they can handle multiple calls simultaneously."

Such a course of action would save governments staff time and money by allowing them to replace a bevy of 800 numbers with IM interfaces. One issue is IM networks don't interoperate, so AOL IM users can't talk to MSN Messenger users. Osterman said he sees interoperability between IM networks happening within the next two years.

Governments have a variety of vendors to choose from. Replacing an 800 number with an IM interface can be accomplished through a particular agency's Web site, said FaceTime's Dean.

"We have the ability to put a 1-800 number into our IM platform," Dean said. "So if a constituent visits a DMV site, that constituent could click on an icon enabled by our technology that said, 'Talk to a customer service representative.' It doesn't matter which customer service representative is available now, we've got all of the routing and queuing capabilities to let anybody who goes to the DMV site speak with any available customer service rep over an IM client."

The company also developed an IM Presence Manager, which can help governments with customer service.

"We can insert and enable any forms and Web pages with presence," Dean said. "We can embed presence directly into a PDF form, so if a constituent is online and reviewing a PDF form on a Web page, he or she can click on a button embedded into the form that says, 'I have a question.'

"That would route that real-time IM request to an available customer service representative," he continued. "We think that notion of aggregating presence and availability of people in government agencies into Web forms, workflows and processes on the Web is very interesting. We can embed all of this directly into every single form and every single page and have it be contextually appropriate."

Building the Business Case
To some CIOs, IM doesn't have sufficient bona fides to justify use in government.

Montana is one state that has blocked IM use both as an internal communications tool and an external communications tool, said state CIO Brian Wolf.

"The use of IM as a purely internal tool is more of a policy decision states or corporate enterprises would have to make based on whether there is a role or specific business need IM meets that can't be met through the telephone or e-mail," Wolf said. "I haven't necessarily seen, or have had brought to me, a compelling business case to use IM."

Wolf cited public records concerns as another aspect of IM use that makes him pause, especially because no record of the IM conversation remains once the IM client is closed -- unless a jurisdiction purchases an enterprise-grade IM platform from a company such as AOL or IBM.

Finally, he said, the security problems presented by consumer-grade IM clients -- either through a direct Internet connection or file-sharing capabilities -- offer too many possible holes for viruses or worms.

"From a government perspective, I can't tell you it is not something we'll eventually do," he said. "I can tell you we'll be looking at it. We will try to understand its applicability. We'll take a hard look at user needs. It's one of those things we'll do more analysis of as time goes on.

"But honestly," Wolf added, "we haven't had people pounding on our doors saying, 'We need IM functionality, both on an external and internal basis.'"
Shane Peterson Associate Editor