Will IM Pay?

Backers say instant messaging will revolutionize the way businesses work. They may be right.

When Virgin Atlantic Airways needed to get a key part to a disabled plane in Barbados in September 2002, the carrier called on delivery specialist Sterling Courier Services. Under normal circumstances, Sterling (a division of Quick International Courier Inc.) would have no problem executing the rush job. But this was most definitely not a normal circumstance: on the day the SOS came in from Virgin, Tropical Storm Lili (later to become Hurricane Lili) was ravaging the Caribbean.

In the end, Sterling managed to make the delivery on time. But Eric Bischoff, Sterling’s chief information technology officer, says the courier company had to use every communications tool at its disposal to coordinate the delivery. One of those tools: instant messaging. In fact, IM helped the company’s dispatchers time the flight plan of the delivery plane so it arrived in Barbados during a lull in the storm. “In our business, we use all available services,” says Bischoff. “And instant messaging is a key method of communication.”

Lately, managers at a lot of companies are discovering the virtues of IM. Backers say IM, once dismissed as a plaything for the under-20 set, dramatically speeds up the flow of information in and out of a company. “You can be on a conference call with someone,” says Bischoff, “and you can fill out a job ticket and ask a third party a question without ever having to hang up the phone.” Experts point out that IM makes it easier for companies to communicate with suppliers. It also makes it easier for companies to communicate with managers to arrange and conduct internal meetings. Says Nate Root, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc.: “[With IM] you don’t have time to grind everyone’s workday to a halt.”

IM software is only going to get more sophisticated, too. Such vendors as FaceTime Communications, IMlogic, and Akonix have already launched innovative IM management tools designed for businesses. At the same time, IM leaders AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, and IBM are refining their enterprise offerings. All four, for example, are beginning to add archiving capabilities to their enterprise IM platforms.

Tales from the Encrypted

Nevertheless, some tech watchers believe enterprise IM is here to stay. Radicati Group, a technology market research specialist, reckons there are already 60 million business IM accounts. IM could have as many as 182 million business users by 2007, claims Ferris Research.

Many analysts believe IM will augment but not supplant electronic mail. “It will rival E-mail in terms of volume and ubiquity,” grants Lou Latham, a research analyst at consultancy Gartner. “But we find that IM replaces the telephone more often than it does E-mail.”

Others are finding the same thing. Financial-services personnel, for instance, are big users of the service, particularly the staff at brokerages and investment houses. The reason? IM reduces transcription errors in orders placed over the phone. “It eliminates the squawk box,” explains Latham.

At online job site Monster.com, vice president of telesales Vartan Hagopian says he keeps AOL Instant Messenger open on his screen all day long. “If you get an instant message, you know someone needs you right away and you can get back to that person right away,” notes Hagopian. “I still prefer face-to-face communication with people, but when I need speedy interaction, I like IM.”

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