Instant messaging (IM) has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a chat tool. It’s now considered a full-featured business application.
Companies that were initially wooed by the speed and convenience of messaging have come to rely on IM to keep workers in contact and on task. In response, messaging providers have stepped up their offerings to cater to business needs, adding features like file transfer, voice messages, and mobile capabilities.
If your company has decided to adopt IM, there are plenty of solutions to choose from, ranging from standalone applications to fully integrated communication platforms.
Before selecting a product, consider how many users you have, which features you require, your existing IT infrastructure, and, of course, your budget. Another key consideration is the level of security you want built into the system. While it’s important for all companies to safeguard their communications, some industries face tighter controls on how to protect and archive e-records. Talk to an IT professional to make sure you understand which features will help you comply with government regulations in your industry.
If you are thinking about using IM as a quick and easy internal communication tool, chances are you don’t need a very robust product. Your first option is the free consumer IM applications such as Yahoo! Messenger and America Online Instant Messenger (AIM), which users download directly onto their desktops. These products offer collaboration features such as conference chat (text chat with multiple users) and PC-to-phone calling, along with productivity features such as file transfers and calendar alerts.
These solutions can be great for keeping connected in a small office, but they lack some of the functions that larger firms crave, such as video conferencing and integration with productivity applications.
But probably the biggest downside to public IM applications is that they lack security features. From a network perspective, they essentially create a hole in your firewall, opening the door to viruses, worms, and IM spam (also known as spim). There’s also no built-in information security. Messages aren’t encrypted or archived, and there are no features to prevent users from copying, pasting, or forwarding messages.
If basic consumer IM applications don’t fit the bill, you may want to move to the next level of products such as AIM Pro, which is still free but offers message encryption, integration with Microsoft Outlook client, voice- and video-conferencing, and one-click access to WebEx meetings. This solution certainly has more business-friendly features, but keep in mind that it sits outside of your firewall, so malware is still a concern.
For companies looking for a total IM solution, with all the collaboration, security, and productivity tools wrapped together, it may be time to invest in an enterprise IM platform.
Products such as Microsoft’s Live Communications Server, IBM’s Lotus Sametime platform, and Novell’s GroupWise Messenger all offer integrated IM features. What this means, essentially, is that presence and messaging can be incorporated into other business applications, such as customer resource management (CRM) software or project management applications.
Enterprise IM systems are also loaded with bells and whistles aimed at business users, such as voice- and video-conferencing, application sharing, desktop sharing, and message archiving.
Enterprise solutions sit behind the firewall and come with security features such as virus scanning, encryption, and internal policy enforcement. Some vendors have also recognized that users often need to communicate with people on other IM networks, so they’ve introduced federation between their enterprise IM software and the public IM networks, allowing users to IM across networks using a single interface. Enterprise IM platforms have a lot to offer, but they can also be pricey, with fees charged per user or per user and per server. That said, if integration and security are your top priorities, enterprise IM systems are the way to go.
For basic collaboration and communication functions, with some business features thrown in, public IM systems can work, but always keep security in mind by setting strict usage policies.