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The medium is the message

Most emails are also a complete waste of time as people try to conduct running conversations by firing messages back and forth when a face-to-face chat would suffice. Moreover, using the ‘cc’, ‘bcc’ and ‘reply to all’ functions – often only for people to protect their backs – is a sure-fire way to annoy colleagues and clutter in-boxes.

Some companies, such as mobile phone retailer Phones4U, have curtailed or banned the use of email in their business. Others have turned to instant messaging (IM) as a solution to the communications log-jam.

Often thought to be the domain of teenagers and chat-room freaks, IM is fast becoming a powerful tool for business communications. The technology works by downloading a piece of software such as AOL Instant Messenger or Microsoft MSN Messenger which allows the user to contact a list of ‘buddies’ and have real-time, scrolling chats over the internet. In business the buddy system can be rolled out so everyone in a corporate directory is connected to each other via IM and any number of users can be involved in any particular online chat.

Currently an estimated 3-5 billion instant messages are sent worldwide everyday, and analyst Gartner estimates that over 80% of businesses have staff using IM. It also predicts that IM traffic will overtake email by 2006.

In IT parlance, the ‘killer’ application of IM is you know whether your intended recipient is logged on, sitting at their desk and ready to accept your message before you send it – there’s no firing messages off blind into cyberspace with little chance of a immediate reply. Likewise, IM means that meetings can be quickly organised and hosted online without logistical hassles.

Online betting company Betfair is an extreme case of a company that needs to communicate quickly. Its online betting exchange sites around the world handle 50 million page views a day, and at peak times 300 bets a second are placed through its exchange. Rorie Devine, Betfair’s infrastructure director says that email proves far too slow for internal communication when problems on its site need to be solved in seconds. “Email is quite a subtle tool. Instant messaging is less political, It’s about communicating information quickly,” he says. “We can now get discussions up and running very quickly, while managers can watch meetings without physically attending.”

Betfair does not force employees to use IM, but Devine has found that most employees have embraced it with open arms. Of course, the downside of using a technology that has its roots in teenagers bedrooms is that business people will use it to chat to their nearest and dearest. But Betfair believes the efficiencies IM brings in the workplace outweigh its use for personal conversations.

However, companies thinking of embracing IM technology should be aware its security implications. The temptation to abuse IM’s informal medium for dissemination of sensitive information will always exist ? whether maliciously or not. Recently, commentators have argued that IM technology has been responsible for leaks of confidential and sensitive information, especially in the investment community. But in fact IM is no less secure than email or telephone, and after careful consideration, the Financial Services Authority has said it will not implement special rules for the control of IM traffic in UK financial institutions.

Betfair archives all its IM in the same way it does for email to monitor any inappropriate behaviour and to keep track of decisions made. “It’s important to have an audit trail of all communications,” says Devine. “Forget compliance, it’s about learning about what is happening in your company.”

But it stands to reason that as it becomes more mainstream, the security risks associated with IM need to be managed more tightly. IMlogic, an IM management company estimates that there are currently 300 IM viruses in existence compared to over 85,000 email viruses. But, unlike email that affords a couple of day?s grace before a virus spreads globally, an IM virus can circle the world in minutes.

Instant messaging will never replace email altogether because it lacks the formality of face-to-face meetings and email. And while common sense dictates that senior managers should avoid using IM for communicating sensitive business information, it will certainly play a major role in business communications in the coming months.

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