instant messaging in the workplace

I need to watch the episode that Scott Wright references for this post. Instant Messaging is a technology that is still in flux when it comes to corporate use, and I’m always curious on the views people have of it, and how companies use it.

My last company had very little interest in controlling the IT environment. As such, people used Yahoo, AIM, and MSN as they wished. Sales used it regularly, especially those people outside the offices at home or on the road. It really was very useful, even if I wasn’t so happy about it. Eventually the company moved to get a centralized (kinda compliant) IM system. We set up a Jabber server, privatized registrations, and got most everyone on that product. Sadly, too often critical business issues were communicated via IM rather than accepted and more loggable avenues of communication such as a ticketing system, phone, or in person searching for someone to assist. Eventually our team went “invisible” on the system because of the abuse and poor “handing-off” of issues via unresponded-to IM messages (and people got pissed that we would always kindly ask for a trouble ticket so that the issue would properly get logged for metrics and reporting). Also, there was widespread fear that we were logging conversations, which drove people away from Jabber. (I never did understand what people were talking about that they were scared it might be logged…besides which we never did turn on logging since no one asked us to do so.) Unfortunately, no one ever supported removing the other IM programs, so eventually Jabber fell by the wayside and only our networking team used it extensively, albeit with a lot of invisibility (hell, our team was geographically split anyway). The user-base then “found” Skype and started installing and using it, despite network team objections. Management had little interest in curbing that, despite the compliancy holes. This is an example of the users pushing technology and process due to indifferent management.

My current company has banned IM use. Not only are many systems limited in user rights and installed software, but my IPS and possibly the web proxy will actively block known IM traffic. Needless to say, we don’t use IM, but there is talk about evaluating its use, especially as we do a lot of travel business which regularly sees employees in some exotic locations.

What is the proper answer? I don’t think there is a universal answer and it will depend on the company, the business needs, and compliance issues. I do think, however, that IM will eventually continue its push into business. Email is broken as a technology and will very, very slowly be replaced with more IM/SMS technologies. I also think that IM is such an integral tool in our culture and lives that business really cannot just completely preclude it forever. I’d rather properly implement it now rather than later, do it properly, and reap the business benefits. Many people will argue about lost productivity, but I don’t think that will necessarily be the case, especially in a private IM system. Besides, if someone is going to screw around, they will screw around whether it is via IM or not.