Getting the Message -- Pronto
Despite Security Concerns, Many Workers Find IM an Indispensable Tool
By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2004; Page F06
It has been several years since instant messaging worked its way from teens' rooms to boardrooms. What started as an easy and hip way for youngsters to communicate with their peers has turned into an easy and hip way for co-workers to communicate -- with their peers, clients and even a family member or two during the workday.
Instant messaging made its way into workplaces at a creep but has since become a permanent and monumental office tool, perfect for getting in touch with far-flung colleagues or the hard-to-reach boss.
IMing has come a long way in a short amount of time. About 70 percent of all organizations used it by the end of 2003, according to a study conducted by Gartner Inc., a market research and consulting firm. The study also suggests that by the end of 2005, instant messaging will surpass e-mail as the primary way people interact electronically. And by 2007, the overall business-IM market will increase to 182 million users, according to Ferris Research Inc.
The software that allows people to instantly send a quick thought or tidbit of information, or even to send entire files to one another instantaneously, has changed the way people work. (We keep saying things like this, but it's true.) When Jeff Stone and his colleagues began to use IM about a year ago, its main purpose was to maintain communication between Momentum Marketing's employees in Old Town Alexandria and offices in New York and elsewhere. Today, Stone, director of operations, cannot imagine the firm's life without it.
"We're, like, a 10-things-at-once agency. It's not unusual to be on the phone with a client while you're building a budget and people are waiting outside the door, waiting to bust in," he said. "I really felt like there needed to be another channel of communication."
Instant messaging is used in many ways at Momentum, which does things like promotions at college campuses. If employees want to share a file, they send it via IM, "download it, trash it" and move on, Stone said. They used to share a file in Microsoft Outlook, but it was too slow. If there is a quick question for an employee based somewhere other than the Alexandria office, that person is often "pinged" rather than called. And to add to our crazed, multi-tasking world, when on a sales call with a client, colleagues will coach each other through the sales pitch via messages.
Since starting her own consulting business last year, Karen McSteen said she is "surprised how many people have [IM] in the business setting." It makes life much easier both inside and outside the office, she said. Before calling, a client will "ping" her to make sure it's a good time to talk. When she worked at America Online -- the king of IM workplaces -- her school-age daughter would ping McSteen as soon as she got home from school just to say hi. "I think she just liked coming on and seeing my name," McSteen said.
She also has IM on her wireless device, so her assistant can silently message her during a meeting, for example, to let her know she has to return to the office as soon as she is finished.
One of the major downsides, however, is that because IM is like a conversation, it is difficult to document things that could later come back to haunt the employees or the executives.
In fact, anytime an employee at Momentum uses IM with a client and a dollar figure is discussed, he or she has to document that in a memo. Although instant messages can be saved, it is more formal to write out a potential contract in a memo than to simply save a message.
"What I tell you or you tell me, it's all perception after" the conversation is over, because nothing is documented, Stone said. "So you have to be careful about what you use it for. I think we're going to need to [write rules] here."
The technology also has a major glitch: There is very little security when it comes to these conversations. As with e-mail, most companies have a right to tap into the conversations if the system is being used on the company's computers. And there have been numerous lawsuits to prove it. Employees have been fired for using IM as a way to pass on explicit material or harass another employee. Some have attempted to countersue, saying their right to privacy was violated. But that argument has no legs. Instant messaging, just like e-mail, should be considered a recorded conversation when typed through work computers or on work time.
There also are not as many firewalls or other protections against IM viruses or spam (also know as spim) as with e-mail. "Our IT man was very nervous about [getting] it. It's . . . outside the framework of what our IT person wants to do -- keep as much security and keep things as structured as possible," Stone said. "When you have something as free-flowing as a conversation, it's just different" from e-mail, he said.
It is the free-flowing-conversation feel of IM that will get employees and companies into trouble, said Mark Grossman, chairman of the technology law group at Becker & Poliakoff in Coral Gables, Fla. "People treat IM as a telephone call, and it's not," he said. "They don't take into account that their IMs may be saved and they come back to haunt them. People say the darnedest things on telephones, e-mail and IM that they wouldn't say in a memo."
Many people know their workplace e-mail can be documented and used against them if they violate a law. But many people do not realize the same thing can occur with instant messaging. "It's just a matter of time before an IM is saved and comes up in court, a la Bill Gates," Grossman said, referring to the Department of Justice's antitrust case against Microsoft Corp., in which prosecutors cited an e-mail penned by Gates.
But for now, those security concerns will keep few people from logging on and checking in with clients, family and friends.
"It's just become such a part of how I do my work," McSteen said. "It's like asking the question, 'Can you imagine life without e-mail?' I could, but it would be more inconvenient."
Join Amy Joyce at www.washingtonpost.com from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday to discuss your life at work. Have questions, comments or something you would like to see in a Life at Work column? Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
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