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Instant messaging: Valuable tool or distraction?

July 13, 1999
Web posted at: 12:12 p.m. EDT (1612 GMT)

by Dominque Deckmyn instant messenger graphic

(IDG) -- Like the Macintosh and the Internet before it, instant messaging technology is sneaking in the back door of corporate America, presenting IT departments with new opportunities and new challenges.

An exclusive Computerworld survey of 149 information technology managers found that 17 percent are aware of some instant messaging use in their companies but that most don't provide technical support for it. And 78 percent of the IT managers said instant messaging is unnecessary because existing e-mail and groupware work fine.

Another worry: Employees may waste time on private chat sessions.

The most popular instant-messaging tool is America Online Inc.'s Instant Messenger, a free piece of software that lets users see which friends or colleagues are online. They can send a message that immediately pops up on the addressee's screen, and two or more users can have an interactive discussion.

Instant messaging is certainly creeping in at BancorpSouth Inc.

"Someone found [Instant Messenger] and downloaded it. Someone else came by, saw it and installed it, too," recalled Dave Soper, vice president of network services at the bank's Tupelo, Miss., operations center.
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Today, about a half-dozen workers use Instant Messenger for personal communications and for giving technical support, Soper said. He said the technology may become a valuable business tool in the future.

Similarly, Jim Nelson, assistant vice president of enterprise systems at Minneapolis-based Behavioral Health, a division of United Healthcare Corp., first saw Instant Messenger on one PC at the company last November. Today, it's on about 150 of the company's 2,000 desktops.

But Nelson said he's still trying to figure out "whether it's a valuable business tool, or whether it has the potential to be a distraction."

Credit Suisse First Boston has little doubt about the value. It's using a custom-developed instant messaging tool called Global Talk to let 1,500 bond traders, analysts and salespeople in offices worldwide exchange time-sensitive trading information.

The software replaces a public-address system that let traders shout offers over the floor. "It's better than e-mail, which isn't really a real-time system," said Joel Shandelman, vice president of fixed income and derivative systems.

Tracy Corbo, an analyst at market research firm Dataquest, predicted that instant messaging will become integrated with existing e-mail infrastructures.

In January, Lotus Development Corp. released Sametime, an instant-messaging and real-time collaboration tool that integrates with Notes. Microsoft Corp. has a free, real-time collaboration tool called NetMeeting. It offers text and voice chat, whiteboard, application sharing and full-fledged videoconferencing.

Nelson said he encourages the use of NetMeeting at his company, but many end users stick with Instant Messenger because it's "a slim [application] that you can keep up all the time."

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