Glue that can help teams bond and gel

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It is all to easy for office communications to disintegrate into endless telephone tag or firing e-mails to colleagues who are away from their desks.

So it is hardly surprising that instant messaging quickly moved from the consumer world into the enterprise – the mix of quick text chat and knowing who is logged on and ready to respond (“presence” information) was an answer to perennial problems.

But instant messaging (IM) is not just about quick conversations. IM technologies can be a social glue to help hold business communities together, allowing teams to communicate and share information without being tied up in more formal channels.

Being able to chat and ask questions quickly makes it easier for new employees to fit in and for remote workers to interact with the rest of the team.

Presence tools show you when someone is busy or in a meeting and when is a good time to interrupt them. An instant message is less distracting or intrusive than the phone ringing and it does not have the delays of an e-mail conversation. It also allows users to begin a conversation with messaging, move to voice or e-mail, and go back again.

Mike Rhodin, IBM’s general manager for Workplace, Portal and Collaboration software, suggests that this all makes IM a useful part of a company’s knowledge management strategy. The next version of IBM’s Sametime suite, for example, will add social networking tools, helping build and manage communities of interest.

Such tools increase IM’s role in knowledge-sharing: tools such as Sametime’s SkillTap give employees access to each other’s experience, allowing an individual to ask a group of specialists a question, without necessarily knowing who they are. Tying IM to a directory in this way gives staff access to a key corporate knowledge resource: each other.

IM is also a fast and simple alternative to voice or video conferencing, another instance of IM-driven social applications providing business tools.

As well as IBM, AOL and WebEx are working to turn IM into a complete communication platform, and the IM-based peer-to-peer collaboration tools in the forthcoming Windows Vista will quickly turn IM sessions into online meetings, with applications and documents being shared alongside an IM session. IM’s social networks are going beyond the chat room, and are evolving into a forum for both formal and informal meetings.

IM will soon be everywhere. So what are the drawbacks?

Security tops the list. Public IM networks are becoming channels for malware and spam, while regulatory compliance means messages need to be logged and stored. There is also the issue of identity: how can you prove that the person you are “talking to” is who they say they are?

Enterprise IM tools aim to fill these gaps. For example, Microsoft’s Live Communications Server uses directory services and policies to manage messaging – inside and outside the business.

Sign up for its PICS federation service, and if anyone not approved by a company is using its e-mail address in an MSN Messenger account, they will be forced to choose a new account name.

Having links to corporate directories means identities can be managed, with policies to control just who can use IM outside the company.

Some IM security platforms even offer finer grain control of specific users’ IM traffic – making sure that only the people who need to use IM for their job get full access to the outside world, while still letting staff use it at lunchtime or after hours for contacting family and friends.

IM security is turning into big business, which is why Symantec recently bought IMLogic for its range of IM security tools. These help businesses protect themselves from instant messaging security breaches, as well as helping make sure that messages don’t break compliance rules.

Security tools also need to go beyond the traditional anti-virus approach, because sophisticated attacks mean that even closed enterprise IM networks are threatened.

Barracuda, for example, offers tools that can be used as both an IM proxy to the outside world, and an enterprise IM server. As well as logging messages and handling antivirus duties, the gateway can be used to scan messages in real-time to ensure that no one is breaching corporate rules.

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