Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Managing the Risks and Rewards of Instant Messaging

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Managing the Risks and Rewards of Instant Messaging

Article excerpt

You probably think instant messaging (IM) as something teenagers do to chat up friends online, whether across the street or across the world. But IM has some buttoned-down business benefits, as well as some risks you may not be aware of.

Unlike e-mail, in which you fire off messages to recipients who read them when they next check their in-box, with IM you and your recipient have to be online at the same time. But the messaging is instantaneous, or nearly so, and rapidly interactive, back and forth.

Many business people use IM for collaboration. Among other things, it lets you send spreadsheets or other documents as attachments and do voice and video conferencing.

An estimated 21 million business people worldwide use IM, and though this figure is roughly 10 percent of the total number of IM users, using IM for business is expected to grow much more quickly over the next three years than consumer use, according to figures by Robert Mahowald, research manager at IDC, a market research firm in Framingham, Mass.

Fully half of the companies it surveyed reported that they've either already deployed IM or plan to within the year, according to Warren Sethachutkul, an analyst for JupiterResearch, a market research firm in New York City.

But many people in the office, like teenagers, also use IM for personal chats. Fully 58 percent of workplace users, in fact, use IM primarily for personal rather that business purposes, according to a new survey of 840 U.S. large and small businesses by the ePolicy Institute and the American Management Association.

"Many office workers are sending inappropriate and potentially damaging [IM] messages," says Nancy Flynn, director of the ePolicy Institute, a consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio, .

According to the same survey, 16 percent of office workers are sending jokes, gossip, rumors or disparaging remarks; 9 percent are sending confidential information about their company, clients or coworkers; and 6 percent are sending messages with romantic, sexual or pornographic content.

As you might expect, this can expose a business to unneeded, unwanted legal liability.

One reason for this is many employees are using free IM programs, such as AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger, without management's knowledge or the IT department's authorization, says Flynn, who has written a new book, Instant Messaging Rules: A Business Guide to Managing Policies', Security and Legal Issues for Senate IM Communication, published by Amacom.

Another reason for the unnecessary legal exposure is that even with many businesses that are aware of their employees' use of IM, there's no official policy governing IM use and content and no attempt to monitor, purge, retain and otherwise control IM use and risks. …

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