Not a Member?  Become One Today!

HR Magazine, September 2005 - HR Technology

By Dan Caterinicchia   8/1/2005
 

HR Magazine, September 2005

Vol. 50, No. 9

Not just for teenagers, instant messaging helps employees communicate. But employers need secure solutions.

Employees working for global organizations need a fast and secure way to communicate with their counterparts around the world. Even employees a floor away could use a fast way to get the answer to a quick question.

E-mail is an option, but sometimes those messages can take minutes, hours or even days to get through. Also, in the age of viruses, firewalls and filters, there’s no way of knowing whether the recipient received the e-mail or when he is going to respond.

Instant messaging (IM) seems like a natural choice when America Online Inc., Yahoo! Inc. and others offer free services. There are hundreds of millions of IM users worldwide. But many businesses want to be able to control how employees are using IM and ensure that the systems are safe and reliable.

“We have offices in Madagascar, and calling costs between here and there are very expensive,” said Alexandre Dinnouti, a senior systems integrator with the Conservation International Foundation, a nonprofit environmental group in Washington, D.C.

The foundation employs about 400 people at its headquarters and has more than 300 employees scattered around the globe in more than 40 offices.

After considering enterprise IM offerings from industry giants, including Microsoft Corp.’s Live Communications Server, Conservation International last November chose a hosted solution from Omnipod Inc. (Other players in this market include Jabber Inc., Communicator Inc., Parlano Inc. and FaceTime Communications Inc.)

Enterprise IM solutions fit the growing need of employers to monitor IM use. It’s easy for employees to download free services from MSN, AOL or Yahoo! But, the company can’t monitor those communications. With enterprise IM, employees get the instantaneous convenience of instant messaging with employers maintaining control over its use.

“IM, like all electronic corporate communication, needs to be managed and governed in accordance with corporate policies,” explains Gideon Stein, Omnipod’s CEO. “Corporations are responsible and liable for all communication emanating from corporate computers, and HR departments need solutions to help them provide enterprise users IM while adhering to corporate policies.”

A Growing Market

Founded in 1999, Omnipod’s Professional Online Desktop (POD) is a rapidly deployable, low maintenance commu– nication framework that integrates instant messaging and file sharing in a secure, centrally controlled infrastructure.

Omnipod has more than 400 customers in numerous markets, including health care, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, architecture and engineering, printing and publishing, state and local government, and telecommunications, says Evan Sohn, chief marketing officer for the New York-based company.

Traditional enterprise intranets and extranets can require complex software, server equipment and a support staff for maintenance and training. Omnipod’s solution can be up and running in one day for as many as 10,000 users, Sohn says. Users sign up by downloading and installing the application directly to their desktops, and no Omnipod customer has ever had to add any human or technology help to support the messaging solution.

“As a hosted service, we don’t need to care about a server, backups and those kinds of things,” Dinnouti says, adding that the greatest benefit of the enterprise IM solution is the lower costs between offices for everyday communications.

Omnipod’s solution can incorporate legacy systems into its messaging platform and provide a framework through which users can communicate with anyone on virtually any device.

And since about 80 percent of businesses have IM somewhere in their organization, but only about 12 percent use an IM management tool, there is a growing market for enterprise instant messaging solutions, Sohn believes.

“Enterprises need to figure out, ‘How am I going to manage this IM thing?’ ” he says. Matthew Anderson, an analyst at The Radicati Group Inc., a technology market research firm based in Palo Alto, Calif., agrees with Sohn’s estimate of the number of business users, and says the enterprise IM market is still pretty new and “right now is really starting to take off.”

At an enterprise customer’s call center, Omnipod’s solution is being used to enhance communications between call center operators and the managers who respond to customer inquiries, Sohn says. The POD increased productivity by virtually eliminating two extremely inefficient types of email: the “one quick question” email that sits in the receiver’s inbox for too long, and the “too long” email that is too complex and needs telephone discussion to resolve. This email has been replaced by a short instant message: “please call me now.”

“We can very quickly and rapidly add a secured IM platform that transcends the call center, management and executive offices,” Sohn explains, adding that e-mail is an effective tool, but messaging is faster and more visible because users can see who’s online and available. “It is a more effective means of corporate communication. No more telephone tag.”

In addition to enhancing communications as a means to increase productivity across an organization, Omnipod’s customers also must adhere to data compliance standards for their industry in terms of what information can be erased, and what must be stored or archived. Any financial data should be stored, Sohn says, adding that the POD solutions comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s corporate accounting requirements.

For sharing files, IM users are not limited by the attachment sizes that many e-mail accounts place on messages. One of Omnipod’s manufacturing clients uses the system to send drawings that are 50 to 70 megabytes in size from Denver to offices overseas in real-time, Sohn says. Most e-mail accounts could not handle files that size.

Omnipod charges $5 per user per month for the basic IM service. Advanced file sharing and reporting options cost more, but there are discounts available as the number of users increases, Sohn says.

Conservation International has about 750 accounts and pays $1.70 per user per month, Dinnouti says.

Anderson says that there is no sweet spot for pricing, but that hosted solutions, while a smaller portion of the market, tend to be a little cheaper than in-house products that require software server purchases. He says there are a variety of reasons why more companies choose the in-house offerings, but having control is key. Still, hosted solutions like Omnipod’s resonate with other businesses.

“It’s attractive to have somebody take care of it—all the setup, all the management,” Anderson says.

Security And Accountability

But even at less than $2 per user per month, why wouldn’t organizations use the free IM offerings? Just as “enterprises don’t use [Microsoft’s] Hotmail for their corporate e-mails,” Sohn explains, “enterprises need managed solutions because they have employees that use their corporate assets that are managed and maintained in a certain fashion.”

As an example, Sohn says most businesses have standards in place for proper language and content in e-mails, but there would be no way to ensure that employees were using appropriate language or names on a public IM network.

He says one potential Omnipod customer had hundreds of public messaging accounts and didn’t realize the potential problems until an employee was terminated. That person immediately lost access to the organization’s virtual private network, voice mail and other proprietary systems, but could still use the messaging platform to communicate with and, in some cases, harass current employees.

Dinnouti says Conservation International chose an established firm like Omnipod instead of a free service because it helps ensure that employees are using the messaging solution appropriately and not picking funny screen names or chatting with friends.

There are also the increased threats of viruses and worms on public networks compared to the more-secure enterprise offerings. Anderson says he expects about 35 percent growth annually in the enterprise IM market over the next few years, mainly because businesses will demand the enhanced security.

Organizations have contracts with the phone companies, Internet service providers and other utilities, and IM is another area where they should demand protection and accountability, Sohn says.

In April, Omnipod became a member of AOL’s Enterprise Federation Partner program, which allows Omnipod customers with company-specific screen names to appear on AOL’s buddy and contact lists. All communications to and from the AOL Messaging Network can be logged, audited and archived by Omnipod to assist in compliance with federal regulations, and central administration capabilities allow enterprises to specifically grant access rights to authorized users and restrict access to those that are not.

Challenges Remain

Because so many Omnipod users are accustomed to the free IM solutions, including features that allow them to set up funny sayings when they’re away from the computer, Omnipod provides a document on IM etiquette to its customers. (See “IM Etiquette”.)

The biggest human resource challenge is determining what’s appropriate and what’s not, Sohn says, adding that the less structured a communication vehicle is, the more prone it is to trouble. In the past, when people frequently wrote business letters, they took their time to craft the letter and check every word before putting it in the mail. But that scrutiny went down a bit with the advent of faxes, and lessened even more with e-mails. IM users must be much more careful because it’s free-flowing text, Sohn says.

The POD solutions come pre-loaded with everyone else in an organization, but HR must train employees to use the software appropriately, including how to let people know when is not a good time to contact them even if they are signed on. Omnipod also can restrict users to only internal messaging based on administrators’ needs.

Sohn says the No. 1 request from end users is that the company develop “emoticons,” the cartoonlike icons that are popular on other systems and that denote a mood or let others know when someone’s away from their computer. Omnipod has about a couple dozen already and is developing more enterprise-specific emoticons, like clocks that show when someone will be back at their desk, he says.

And while users want features to provide them flexibility and maybe a little more fun, HR’s needs are different.

HR and IT “administrators want more security and more control,” Sohn says, over things like password management, which includes determining when passwords expire and being able to set rules for their use.

With regard to passwords, Dinnouti says the one thing he’d like to see added is a link between Conservation International’s Lightweight Directory Access Protocol server and Omnipod’s authentication server because users now must remember two passwords to sign in. But he says Omnipod has told him a solution is in the works.

The main challenge for Omnipod is balancing the needs of employers and end users. Employers want more control and more power, which requires a centralized solution. Users want flexibility and mobility, which is better suited to a decentralized solution. Sohn says Omnipod’s 50 employees are working to provide both.

“Because of the public networks, people at work will use [IM] unmanaged and unsanctioned,” Anderson cautions. “They’re not supposed to use it, but they use it anyway.

“IM management [by the employer] is just going to have to happen.”

Dan Caterinicchia is based in Washington, D.C., and writes frequently about information technology.
Copyright Image Obtain reuse/copying permission

IM Etiquette

Its a good idea to periodically remind employees and managers of the following instant messaging user guidelines:

  • Ask before starting the IM session. Make sure the person is available before starting the conversation. Do not assume the other person is free.
  • Exit unambiguously. Tell someone else when an IM session is over so they know to stop.
  • Be brief. A thought or two, at the most, is all that should be sent at once.
  • Watch what you write. Do not write anything in an IM that you would not write in an e-mail or a typed letter. Whatever is said in IMs can be saved, copied and forwarded.
  • Do not be Big Brother. Managers that use IM to monitor employees scare everybody off IM altogether.
  • IM is not always suitable. IM does not replace face-to-face meetings or phone calls; it complements them.
  • Avoid typos. While IMs are meant to be casual, too many typos can appear careless.
  • Avoid using ALL CAPS. In e-mail and IM, all capital letters is the equivalent of shouting, and its use may inadvertently offend other users.