Who Goes There?

Businesses discovered instant messaging's effectiveness. Now, they're finding more value in the technology that underlies it.
But presence awareness has its critics. Privacy concerns are sure to surface, focusing on how the technology may be used to monitor workers. And some business-technology executives say that using presence-awareness technology is harder than it looks.

"I'm not a big fan," says Larry Quinlan, CIO at Deloitte Consulting. Regardless of how much control users exercise over who can or can't detect their online presence--and Sametime, like most IM applications, is designed to let users control who can see that they're online--Quinlan says it's asking too much of employees to manage who knows they're online, not to mention the potential for frequent interruptions of work. Quinlan says he fears that if presence awareness isn't used responsibly, it may actually chase people offline.

He also urges caution for those considering extensive IM deployments. "Instant messaging turns out not to be a small support issue," he says, noting that domain-name-system routing, IM routing, and maintaining multiserver IM environments, while not expensive, have proved to make these efforts surprisingly complex. He estimates that Deloitte spent no more than $250,000 on hardware, software, and services while deploying the company's Exchange 2000 instant messager, but the rollout took six months. "This is a technology in transition," he says.

Maybe, but statistics indicate it has momentum in business environments. Many employees are using consumer IM applications on an ad hoc basis for basic communication, and growing numbers of companies are adopting the tools to address specific business objectives. Yankee Group recently reported that 35% of telecommunications companies with more than 100 employees are using IM for customer service. In financial services and retail, the numbers are 31% and 27%, respectively.

Customer support is a logical starting point for many companies. But PeopleSoft's Gupta says that's the tip of the iceberg. "Instant messaging will drive the presence-detection capability that has been missing from the Internet until now," he says.

At public-relations firm Porter Novelli, presence awareness attracted executives to Sametime's IM functionality, says Bob Elloyan, VP and director of enterprise technology. Porter Novelli is deploying an IBM WebSphere Portal Server that will help complete a knowledge-management system that includes presence awareness as an underlying technology. Whenever employees are online and available, their names will be hot-linked to a variety of services, including E-mail, instant messaging, and directory listings that detail their areas of expertise.

So far, Elloyan has deployed Sametime to 200 of 2,500 potential users, and he's fending off additional employees eager to get aboard. That's just fine with him. "What makes a successful deployment," Elloyan says, "is when you have users aggressively adopting a technology and asking for more, rather than having to sell it to them."

The aggressive adoption of IM by businesses means presence awareness will continue to expand, and managers will have to sort out the privacy, payback, and productivity concerns along the way.

-- with Rick Whiting

Photo of David Baildon by Erik Lesser/Getty Images