Boss, don't take away my IM

Blocking IM because some  people may expose the company to some  risk and some  cost is out of proportion to the useful and important role it can play in business communication.
Written by Patrick Houston, Contributor
COMMENTARY--What would you do if your company suddenly issued the following memo?

    To: All employees
    From: The CEO
    Re: Phones and e-mail for personal use

    We have discovered that many employees are using their e-mail and phones to communicate with outsiders--even, on occasion, for personal reasons. These communications tools are for business only. Therefore, effective today, we are deploying a new technology to block e-mails and phone calls to and from anyone other than company employees.

I know what I'd do. I'd be dialing the employee assistance program for a list of psychotherapists. Not for me, but for the chief, utterly convinced that he'd gone off his rocker.

SOUNDS NUTTY, right? Yet recently a company called SurfControl launched a new product that would do just that to instant messaging--a tool that's becoming as common, and as important, to business communications as the phone or e-mail.

SurfControl is certainly a legitimate company. Headquartered in London, it's been around since 1998. It's publicly traded. And it's fulfilling a sane-sounding need--to help corporate network administrators address the risks and costs posed by the publicly available instant-messaging services which have, by one estimate, made their way into some 80 percent of all companies.

I recently spoke to SurfControl's product marketing manager, Jim Murphy, about those risks (viruses, information theft, and so on) and how his product works. While I don't have a beef with SurfControl's product per se, I do want to raise a red flag about the corporate mindset that wants to block IM.

I UNDERSTAND WHY companies are worried. Widely used instant-messaging clients from the likes of AOL, ICQ, Yahoo, and MSN were not designed for business. Those silly little emoticons hardly project a professional demeanor.

But blocking IM because some  people may expose the company to some  risk and some  cost is out of proportion to the increasingly useful and important role it can play in business communication.

My view on this is informed by my own experience here at AnchorDesk and our parent company, CNET Networks. As my colleague David Coursey pointed out in his recent column on the topic, we've been using Yahoo's instant-messaging client around here for years. We don't use it for idle chatter or for staying in touch with friends and family. We use it to do real work.

But IM isn't just an internal communications tool for us. We use it to converse with outside contacts as well. For example, Trevor Bratton, a spokesman for ViewSonic, often instant messages me with questions or tidbits about his company's line of display products, which we follow closely.

Given a choice between communicating by phone or IM, I opt for IM. It's more efficient. A typical IM conversation dispenses with specious pleasantries and gets to the point, expressed more concretely and clearly in writing than verbally. Plus, it's easy to pass along URLs and other bits of text that would be unwieldy on the phone.

BUT THOSE AREN'T the only reasons I question conventional corporate wisdom when it comes to IM.

In case our bosses haven't noticed, let's tell them: The once clear distinction between office time and personal time is becoming ever more fuzzy. The tentacles of communications technology reach too far into our lives, whether we're at home or at work. Thanks to cell phones, pagers, and high-speed home Internet connections, many of us now use "personal" time and resources to company benefit. Why shouldn't we, as a quid pro quo, be able to do some personal business on company time, using company resources?

I talk to my wife and kids from the office. I'll send an e-mail to a friend from my company account. I'll check a ball game score from work. Who doesn't? But I also talk to colleagues from home outside of customary business hours. I use my DSL connection at home to check my corporate e-mail and to do work-related research.

When it comes to IM, or other forms of corporate communication, for that matter, blanket black-and-white solutions won't work. Only common sense, on the part of the employees and companies, will.

IT WOULD BE FINE if my company decided to forbid the use of Yahoo or other IM services here, but only--and I do mean only--if it replaced that service with an officially sanctioned one that would allow us to communicate not just with each other, but with other non-corporate IM users on publicly available services.

There are times when employees need to follow their company's lead. But there are also times when companies need to follow their employees. Let's not forget, after all, that it was employees, acting outside the bounds of corporate conventions at the time, who pioneered the use of PCs and, later, the Internet for what have unquestionably become business purposes.

We're doing the same with IM. So, hey boss, don't you dare take my IM away from me. Or if you do, please make sure you replace it with an app that lets me be just as productive as the ones you're shunning.

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