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Beyond IM: Group Chat Evolving Into E-Mail 2.0

More than just a substitute for e-mail, group chat is a productivity booster that's becoming a must-have app in the enterprise. Here's what to consider as you assess how to integrate the technology into your infrastructure.

Group online chat -- the latest technological iteration in the thrust toward improved real-time communications -- is becoming a must-have application in the enterprise. Chat has morphed from a late-night consumer favorite into a legitimate business tool as businesses have evolved their infrastructures from voicemail to e-mail and finally to instant messaging.

Buying Chat Apps:
Questions To Ask
1. Do you need your own server or a hosted service?
2. How many different rooms or discussions do you want to host? Make sure your system won't run out of gas when it becomes popular.
3. What happens when you aren't in the room? How the chat products archive and search on previous conversations is critical.
4. How does your chat software populate its directory structure and interact with your existing Active Directory or LDAP servers?
5. Do you want to interoperate with public IM systems such as AOL or MSN?
6. Can your system create rooms on the fly from one-on-one conversations?

However, while all of those technologies have been one-to-one replacements for single conversations, chat is the beginning of a new movement toward replacing group meetings. It offers workable communications support for far-flung project teams, with the attendant obvious boost in productivity

The added good news is that IT managers can easily support chat applications, and CIOs can make a strong case for chat's return on investment, especially when compared with traditional voice conferencing and videoconferencing.

Consider chat's demonstrated utility in the crucible of the armed forces, where group chat sessions are replacing more traditional radio communications among naval battle groups. "You can coordinate who is going where and monitor your tactical situation," said Peter Saint-Andre, the executive director of the Jabber Software Foundation and supplier of the software to the military for that purpose.

Wall Street has led the way in the implementation of the technology because it offers traders a big, immediate payoff. "It's hard to be on the phone with 30 different guys at the same time," said Brian Trudeau, the CIO of Amerex, an energy-trading firm in Sugar Land, Texas. "Being a brokerage house, you want to be in contact with as many of your customers as you can and all at once."

"Chat is perfect, especially for busy people in the financial services industry who don't have the time to put together a telephone conference call," said Melanie Gordon, communications manager for Reuters' Collaboration Services in New York City. Reuter's sells its own chat services software.

Traders are attracted to chat because they can create different rooms or chat channels for each market, and can conduct virtual meetings throughout the day without having to take time to be away from their desks. They also can work on more things concurrently and make better decisions, too. "Investment banks will have one chat room per trading desk, and everyone will be in there watching that particular market," said Saint-Andre. "Traders don't need their multiline phones anymore, since they can be in 30 or 100 different rooms, tracking different markets."

Spam Relief

Chat and IM have some intrinsic advantages over other communications technologies, such as e-mail. First, chat provides inbox relief from the spam, viruses, and malware that clog a company's e-mail pipes. E-mail also is a one-to-one communications tool, whereas chat is multiuser.

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