There’s little doubt that instant messaging (IM) has gained a foothold in the corporate world. But as I’ve discussed in previous articles, most deployments have been freewheeling—initiated by individuals or departments—and not condoned by the IT department.

This unmanaged IM use is likely to end within a few short years, however, as more enterprises acknowledge the value of IM as a business tool and begin examining ways to exert control, implement security measures, and integrate it with other systems. Corporate spending on IM products and services is expected to increase from $133 million this year to $1.1 billion in 2005, according to the market research firm IDC.

If your organization has made the decision to implement an IM solution, there are several integration issues you’ll need to consider. I’ll examine those concerns, tell you about some existing and new IM products entering the marketplace, and cover a few cost-of-ownership issues of using IM as a stand-alone system vs. integrating an application with existing communications systems.

IM series, part 3

In the first installment of this three-part series on IM, “Why CIOs should embrace IM,” we examined the benefits IM holds for the enterprise. The second article, “Consider both users’ and enterprise needs when choosing an IM solution,” covered the initial steps involved in finding the right IM solution.

Stand-alone vs. integration
When reviewing IM technologies, most CIOs are inclined to avoid stand-alone options for various reasons. For one, stand-alone applications require additional staff time for maintenance and make it necessary to re-create and build current user accounts. As both of these issues impact cost of ownership, most tech leaders envision integrating IM with current communication systems.

Both Microsoft and IBM/Lotus offer products that combine or add IM features to existing communications servers, but some CIOs are seeking a different type of integration. Specifically, they view IM as an adjunct to e-mail, which plays a larger role as part of an integrated knowledge management (KM) strategy. That’s the view a Cambridge, MA, biotech research company recently took when investigating IM solutions.

“My concern is that we had lots of information being lost because we had no formal way to capture IM sessions on the free services,” explained IS manager James Sanders. “It’s not that hard to save a session, but it’s not something many of our workers knew how to do. Besides, even if we got everyone to save the text of the exchange, what good does this information do us sitting out there on everyone’s PCs?”

This led Sanders to look for a product that would allow him to capture the IM sessions and use the information to enhance the user knowledge base.

“We want to extract the good tidbits from a session, organize this information, and make it available to everyone,” explained Sanders. For instance, he wanted to be able to share the tech solutions to common problems that had resulted from user and support IM sessions.

Sanders drew a parallel between these IM exchanges and the evolution of help desk systems. Those early LAN help desk systems generated trouble tickets when a problem was called in and tracked the problem’s resolution. The next generation provided automated knowledge bases that allowed a network manager to categorize problems and solutions so anyone working on a help desk could do a quick search in the corporate knowledge base to see if a similar problem had already been solved.

“It’s the same with IM today,” said Steven Rogers, CIO of a New York-based money-management firm. “We don’t want people solving the same problem 100, 200, a thousand times within the company over and over again. If someone uses IM to solve a problem, we want a way to save this information, organize it, and make it searchable.”

More solutions entering the marketplace
The concept of integrating IM as an element of KM—as part of a larger collaboration strategy—is credited for spurring most of today’s IM commercial offerings. As I mentioned earlier, IBM/Lotus has dug a fairly strong hold in the market with its Lotus Sametime, and Microsoft has also been supporting this concept within existing products like Exchange Server and NetMeeting.

In February, Microsoft announced a licensing agreement with IMlogic Inc., a Boston-based IM services provider, in which Microsoft will embed IMlogic’s IM archiving technology into its next generation of real-time communications products.

But the big-name players aren’t the only ones offering viable IM/collaboration solutions. Companies like Groove Networks and eRoom Technology, Inc. also produce enterprise-class collaborative software offering chat and other features that allow workers to easily share ideas.

Compatibility is key
The primary element that CIOs need to keep in mind is that as IM becomes a more critical corporate tool, tech leaders will need to adopt solutions that work well with existing IS efforts to keep the administrative work—and the costs—to a minimum.

And so while it’s encouraging to see more IM collaborative products hitting the market, actual integration and compatibility will always be the linchpins for making IM a value-add to any existing KM or database effort.

What’s been your IM product experience?

We’re compiling a downloadable listing of IM services, and we hope you’ll share your thoughts about the IM technology you’re using today. E-mail us the service name, and a site link or contact number for list inclusion if possible, or start a discussion to debate the merits of today’s commercial IM solutions.