A doctor shoots off a quick IM to a colleague asking advice about a patient.
A top-level manager trades a long series of instant messages with another manager. They're debating whether to fire one of their workers.
Every day critical information is being shared across the Internet. What has changed in the last few years is that a little less of it is being sent via email. Today, there's a good chance it's traveling via instant messaging.
The scary part is that most of the instant messaging software being used today -- at home and in the office -- is freeware that was not intended to record and save messages. A user clicks on a ''buddy's'' name, sends a series of messages back and forth, and then closes the connection. Once that connection is shut down, the messages are gone.
So what happens when critical information is being shared over instant messaging? What happens when instant messaging is being used in industries, such as healthcare and finance, regulated by laws mandating that communications be saved and stored?
''If companies don't have a system for capturing and storing these messages, then they have a big problem,'' says Doug Chandler, a program director at IDC, a major analyst firm based in Framingham, Mass . ''This can only get more critical as time goes on and instant messaging usage increases. I see IM becoming another critical communication tool in the office.''
Chandler says now is the time for IT administrators to figure out how to capture, store and access instant messages. Develop a plan and get it in place before instant messaging becomes even more commonplace than it is today.
Think Users Don't Have IM? Think Again
Michael Osterman, president and founder of Osterman Research Inc., based in Black Diamond, Wash ., says a lot of IT administrators and CIOs are under the false assumption that their end users are not communicating at the office with instant messaging software. They think that since IT hasn't deployed the software, it's not on the network.
''Unlike every other technology in the organization, IM started from the bottom up,'' says Osterman. ''Everything else started with IT. Instant messaging, for the most part, started with individual users downloading their own clients. People are now using whatever applications they happen to like.
''An enterprise has to understand what's in place on their network,'' he adds. ''A lot of companies say, 'We don't use IM', and then install sniffing software and find out that a lot of users are using it.''
Instant messaging may have started out as a way to quickly communicate with friends and family, but it quickly became a staple in the enterprise.
Actually, instant messaging is nipping at the heels of email for the top rung on the communication ladder. Messages can travel back and forth in real time, giving businesses an edge in industries nourished by speed and flexibility. Buddy lists enable coworkers to see when you're online and available. Away messages keep bothersome interruptions at bay.
While there are several enterprise-level instant messaging software packages on the market today, most users still are taking advantage of freeware, like AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger.
Capturing Key Information
The company's employees are using instant messaging, so now you've got to set up policies regarding its usage and then figure if you should be capturing and storing the communications.
Osterman says the need to store the communications -- any critical communications -- is clear-cut.
''IM, from a functional standpoint, is no different from email,'' says Osterman. ''If you communicate with a client with IM, any communications have to be preserved just like they're email. The whole concept of IM is really complicating things.''
David Ferris, president of San Francisco-based Ferris Research, agrees.
''There's absolutely no question about it,'' says Ferris. ''Regulations talk about electronic information, and IM is clearly that type of media, just as much as email and word documents.''
Ferris and Osterman also say that even if an industry isn't regulated, administrators should be thinking content management and instant messaging has to be part of that plan.
''Most companies aren't archiving to protect themselves from litigation or for knowledge management purposes,'' says Osterman. ''They think if an email is deleted it won't come back and bite them. Bill Gates can tell you that isn't so.''
So how do you capture messages that are gone in the ether once the communication box is closed out?
It's not as daunting as you might think.
Osterman points out that MSN Messenger V6.2 has the ability to capture a record of the online conversation. It saves it in an XML file, giving you a record of what was written, along with the time and date.
Other free software doesn't have the same capabilities today. If employees are using them, administrators will need to employ overlay software, which will implement capabilities on top of the consumer-grade software. That will provide logging abilities, security, name/space control and archiving.
But what really is needed is a policy.
CIOs and administrators need to sit down and decide if employees should be using IM at all. If it's an acceptable tool, then they need to decide if they should standardize on one IM product. And should that product be an enterprise-level software package, which will cost the company money but will have archiving capabilities built in?
''It's not that daunting at all,'' says Osterman. ''As long as you implement an enterprise messaging system or a good overlay, it's not that bad... And instant messaging really does have to be considered as a critical component of overall content management.''