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Instant messaging comes of age

Instant messaging at work has developed among employees at office level, often without official sanction.
Is instant messaging a useful business tool?
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(CNN) -- It is more conversational than an email, less trouble then picking up a phone and very hard to control.

No longer the preserve of teenage geeks in their bedrooms, instant messaging is on the rise in the workplace, and not just as a way of catching up on office gossip.

But that has also triggered concern among employers that their staff are sending data that cannot be detected, monitored and logged and could leave their IT systems vulnerable to viruses.

Francis deSouza, the founder of IM Logic, a company that helps IT managers control and regulate how staff use instant messaging (IM), believes companies are finally catching on, but says many still have a long way to go to accommodate it as a communications tool.

"There is still perception that it is not a business tool, that it is really used for social chitchat," de Souza told CNN.

"I think a gap still exists where business users have found it to be a really effective way of doing their work and IT departments are still only catching on to that fact."

At present, deSouza says, IM is largely a grassroots phenomenon, adopted by employees and incorporated into their work routine without official sanction.

He believes companies need to formally incorporate it as part of their communications infrastructure, such as by providing staff with company IM identities.

"Companies actually need to manage that as part of their brand," he says. "You wouldn't allow people to use any email address for example to represent the company, so you need to think about what kind of IM identities you want to give to your employees to use because they are representing the company."

One company that is benefiting from DeSouza's guidance is UK-based online gambling company Betfair.

Rorie Devine, Betfair's director of infrastructure, says IM has transformed the way its employees communicate.

"It's very important to Betfair as a business because it is an instant communication medium," he says.

"We do 300 transactions a second and for any business moving that quickly, minutes and seconds can be crucial when you are looking at issues or trying to resolve problems. And we find that it is a very collaborative tool where issues can be resolved incredibly quickly."

But Devine admits Betfair have also had to tighten up their security to combat the risk of viruses exploiting weaknesses in IM systems.

"The technologies and the risks are well known; we have the viruses that come via instant messaging, that come in via email and go out via instant messaging and vice-versa," he says.

"The technologies that the virus writers are employing are getting more and more sophisticated every day and you need leading technology to combat it."

And viruses aren't the only problem. At Betfair anything that goes out via IM stays on the company's records.

Tom Hopkinson of data recovery consultancy Kroll Ontrack says that level of accountability is likely to become a standard requirement of most in-house legal departments.

"You can have binding decisions which companies have made with each other as a result of a text that has taken place over instant messaging, but there's no record of that conversation having taken place, and there's no fall back position that lawyers or regulatory bodies can go to when they need to find evidence of this decision which apparently has been made," Hopkinson says.

There's no shortage of protective software on the market, but it's the lack of attention at corporate level that IM experts say is the problem. IT managers take heed; it could save you some painful legal headaches in the future.

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