No one can deny it: Instant messaging (IM) is a big hit within corporations. It’s likely not too popular with CIOs, however, who now face the task of controlling IM use before it wreaks havoc within the enterprise.

In most companies, employees and departments are typically using free IM services (think MSN Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger) without the consent or the blessing of the IT department. In fact, IM is so easy for any PC user to set up that some IT units might not even know what services are being used or by whom.

The trouble IM poses is a mixed bag of threats, from exposure or interception of proprietary company information to providing a conduit for malicious programs like worms and trojans to even more serious business issues, including inadvertent SEC violations. (For more information on that aspect, read my previous article “Instant messaging threatens enterprise security.”)

These potential headaches are prompting many CIOs to embrace IM, albeit not happily in some cases, and implement a corporate use program.

“It makes sense to nip this in the bud now,” said Robert Marrington, CIO of a Massachusetts-based electronics component design firm. “I understand why some of our departments want to use [IM], I just want to be able to have some control over [IM] use before things get out of hand.”

But despite the downsides to IM, many companies are moving to integrate IM into the infrastructure because of the benefits the technology has to offer. In this article, I’ll look at the growth of IM in the enterprise and why many businesses are leveraging IM by integrating it with other corporate systems.

Instant messaging series

This three-part series on instant messaging examines what CIOs are doing to accommodate IM within the enterprise. The second installment will examine the pros and cons of several IM products and options (including free commercial services and setting up an IM server vs. outsourcing IM to a service provider). The final part will discuss the need for CIOs to integrate IM with existing communications systems and the cost-of-ownership issues of using IM as a standalone system vs. integrating IM with other communications systems.

IM use is growing
Marrington notes that, thanks to the word of mouth touting IM’s usefulness, growth in IM use has been astronomical in his enterprise, and he doesn’t see it abating anytime soon.

The CIO is not alone in his observation. In the next few years, the number of corporate IM users is expected to increase exponentially, from 18.4 million this year to 229.2 million in 2005, according to Framingham, MA-based consultancy IDC.

But as CIOs move to acknowledge and validate corporate IM use, many are unconvinced that they should invest company dollars in IM when free services are available, despite the growing trend to invest in an IM infrastructure. IDC estimates that companies will spend $1.1 billion on IM in 2005—quite a spike from the estimated $133 million spent this year.

The reason for the expected spend is partly because companies want to address the security issues attached to IM. But it is also due to some companies’ desire to leverage IM by integrating it with other corporate systems.

Integrating IM with customer support
Because IM provides a much quicker and more intimate way to communicate with colleagues and clients, many companies are using IM to augment traditional customer-relationship systems.

William McGee, VP of operations at a New Jersey plastics manufacturing company, indicated that his company sees a great benefit in using IM interactions to help gather customer information. “We would like to take all of the conversations our support people have with customers and organize this information so it can be useful beyond that single conversation.”

McGee said that one approach to organizing this data is to take the problems, and resolutions, shared via IM and create a single, searchable database. In this way, a support person can quickly discover if a customer’s problem has already been resolved, saving the support staff both time and effort. Another idea is to build a knowledgebase from the conversations and categorize messages by problem type. This would allow customers to search for solutions to common issues, which would reduce support calls.

A preview of IM applications
No matter if IM’s embraced for communication purposes or boosting customer service, the next step is investigating the right application. The good news here is that CIOs have a wide range of new commercial IM products and services to pick from. Some products come from major e-mail vendors, including IBM Lotus and Microsoft. Others hail from relatively new companies, such as Groove Networks Inc., Bantu Inc., and JabCast Inc., that specialize in secure peer-to-peer business communications. Other choices are coming from e-mail outsourcing service providers, like United Messaging.

In the next part of this series, I’ll help CIOs determine which IM application is best for their enterprise by examining several of these solutions and what features and functionalities are available.