No Longer a Nicety: EIM

For a brief moment at a company meeting last summer, Tech Trading’s CIO Eric Amadeo wondered if he might get lynched. He had, after all, committed the unspeakable: shutting down all instant messaging (IM) traffic at the copier and fax supply company.

“When I disabled IM, there was a morale issue,” Amadeo remembers. “It was like the end of the world.”

It’s a growing CIO issue because when IM use among employees or between employees and the outside world triggers network-security or corporate-governance problems and IM has to be shut down.

“The security risks with viruses and Spam are really growing” for IM users, said Melanie Turek, a senior vice president at Nemertes Research.

But IM use is also growing. Somewhere between 50% and 80% of North American workers are using IM at the office, according to Nate Root, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

Nearly two-thirds of those who use IM at the office are doing so with an unsanctioned application, Root said, adding “There is a huge mass of people who color outside of the lines.”

And corporate use of IM will only grow, Turek said, making it an “inevitable” concern for CIOs.

To be sure, in these days of Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) compliance and heightened scrutiny on electronic communications from the board of directors to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), unsanctioned communications are the last thing a CIO wants on his agenda.

Compliance with electronic communications regulations is a major reason why companies such as Tech Trading are turning to enterprise IM (EIM) solutions with extra security, archiving, blacklisting and monitoring features.

“The carrot (driving EIM adoption) is better communication and faster collaboration, as a business differentiator when you deal with customers,” Root said. “Compliance is the stick.”

“We needed something auditable, where the paper trail could be chased,” said Amadeo, who eventually settled on Omnipod’s hosted EIM product.

With built-in firewalls and security software options, Omnipod offers Tech Trading a safer communications environment, which Amadeo said makes the principals of his company happy.

And of course as with any standardization on a single application, using IM gives Amadeo’s fewer products to support, saving the CIO’s office time and money. As Root writes in a recent report on EIM, “The hodgepodge of different IM clients and versions is a nightmare for IT to support.”

All told, it added up to more than enough arguments for the $80 million Tech Trading to install EIM at the end of last summer. “It took a liability and turned it into an asset,” Amadeo said.

Are you wonder if EIM can be an asset at your company? Root suggests that you start by running a network check to “see how bad your problem is and to see how many instant messages are flying around your network.”

Then, calculate the business risk to your company if you get caught without proper communications logging. Any regulation that requires you to keep e-mail logs pretty much applies to IM, Turek said. “With e-mail you have a record of the messages somewhere. With IM you don’t. Buy its nature, IM disappears into the ether.”

“It’s a risk calculation,” said Forrester’s Root. “If you have 40% of your users using (IM) to communicate outside the firewall, the risk is substantially higher,” than if that same number of staffers use IM only within the corporate walls.

If you decide EIM is needed, hash out a plan of attack with your company’s legal, policy-management and financial-compliance staff to make sure that your technical approach fits your company’s business needs, Root recommends.

If possible, find a solution that works with popular consumer IM products already in wide use. Earlier this month, for example, Microsoft announced updates to its Microsoft Office Live Communications server that include enterprise-level IM connectivity to the MSN, AOL and Yahoo! public IM networks.

When it comes time to announce the new IM policy at a company meeting, don’t be thrown by instant hostility from staffers. With smart support from your department, things should calm down soon — just as they did at Tech Trading.

“(Now) I know what’s going on and who is talking to who,” Amadeo said. “The people in the sales floor are happy. Nobody takes shots at me any more in the company meetings. In the next five years, you’ll see (IM) as a major way in which we communicate.”