Does "IM" in your office mean "instant mess"? Or has instant messaging technology become an increasingly useful business communications tool?

Instant messaging first took popular hold with consumers through AOL (and its offshoot product AIM), Yahoo and MSN. Today, however, businesses are racing to develop commercial versions.

A consortium of Wall Street firms is even testing a secure IM system. Why not include your stock broker and banker on your buddy list?

Businesses can’t ignore that employees prefer to use IM throughout the business day. AOL’s recent estimate that over one billion instant messages are sent - each day - couldn’t

occur if people only chatted with friends after work.

Many firms initially banned IM from the workplace, as a distraction from work and a burden on limited resources. However, as one leading consultant noted, that was the first reaction to workplace email as well.

Some firms continue to ban multi-media attachments, or restrict non-work email. Yet many more permit personal messages as a morale-boosting convenience for employees.

Similarly, an increasing number of businesses refuse to waste IT resources on ferreting out a technology that employees have adopted by choice - in contrast to employer-provided software that often sits unused. Instead, those firms have begun to investigate the flood of "enterprise IM" products now becoming available, and to explore the risks from widespread business use of a consumer technology.

What business risks does IM create? Many arise from its haphazard adoption by individual employees without convenient recordkeeping, rather than a coordinated rollout through the IT department under management direction.

For example, many firms routinely monitor email for illegal or offensive acts, such as discrimination or harassment. Others are required by regulators to keep detailed records of all communications with clients. The fact that an employee illegally promoted a stock sale in an unauthorized instant message won’t help when the SEC asks for records.

IM presents new challenges to such recordkeeping. Even as firms struggle to cope with the recordkeeping burden from the flood of email, IM on every desktop adds a new layer of volume - and complication.

Competing IM systems pose another headache for the IT department. Just as the first railroads bickered over common standards for such basic technology as track size, the leading IM products still don’t always talk to each other.

That may not matter in the battle for the hearts and minds of teenagers. But no one wants a key bid to fail because it was sent over incompatible IM software.

IM further complicates billing and cost recovery. How should the costs of the networks that make IM possible be factored into pricing, particularly when instant messaging creates tremendous cost and time savings over traditional methods of communication?

In today’s post-September 11 world, IM too has security issues. Consumer IM programs do not verify the identity of senders, or effectively keep out eavesdropping hackers. Some experts have even predicted IM virus attacks.

More fundamentally, will greater day to day use of IM hurt business? Since the tech collapse has challenged the wisdom of decisions made in so-called "Internet time", should we expect that decisions made "instantly" will be any wiser?

Yet these concerns all mirror fears about business use of email in the "dawn" of the Internet era - not all of which have yet been solved. But few would try to do business today without email, despite the known risks.

Instead, IM presents additional challenges for executives, as well as for the IT department.

A firm’s system administrators must recognize that many employees will use IM in business, regardless of policies against it. To try to avoid problems, firms should find commercial IM products that best fit their needs.

Executives, however, face a much harder task - adapting business routines to take advantage of instant messaging’s speed, simplicity and employee acceptance. The first to solve that challenge may, like FedEx or, become textbook examples of winning competitive advantage through early adoption of technology.

Copyright 2002 Stanley P. Jaskiewicz, Esquire

The content of this article does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on in that way. Specific advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.