Rob Shoenfelt's small company and Mara Conklin's don't have much in common. Shoenfelt is chief information officer for the 160-employee Celina Insurance Group. Conklin is president of a four-person communications agency, Clarus Communications.
However, both successfully use an unorthodox tool to increase productivity: instant messaging (IM).
Instant messaging is best known as the software used by young people and others who "chat" with each other for long periods of time over the Internet. You type a message to somebody and it appears within seconds on that person's screen. They then can reply to your message in an ongoing chat session.
Some large enterprises have adopted instant messaging for business use and, as Shoenfelt's and Conklin's companies show, it also is starting to be used in small firms. They took different approaches to deploying IM, but both have found the same results.
"IM is often much more efficient and much quicker and smarter than calling, especially if you're working with people half the country away," Conklin said. "It minimizes a lot of phone calls. It's been one of the best tools we have"
"IM is terrific and a lot faster for quick communications," Shoenfelt agreed.
An industry analyst, Simon Hayward of Gartner, noted that IM is being increasingly used by small businesses.
"It's really useful when people are geographically distributed," he said. "But even within the same building, it makes things simpler. It makes people more efficient and it creates immediacy."
In Everyday Use
Conklin said IM is particularly useful given the nature of her "virtual" communications agency, in which all four partners work at home. Two partners are located in the Chicago area and two are in Philadelphia.
With IM, you can see quickly whether the person is available because users "check out" when, say, they go to lunch. Then, a special icon appears next to that person's name in the IM program indicating that they aren't available.
Conklin said she and her partners use IM throughout the day. "It's pretty constant. In any given hour, we use it at least once. For instance, I'll contact one of my partners and ask for a somebody's phone number or something like that," Conklin said. "It's easier and faster than calling.
They'll also use IM during conference calls with clients. "It's like being in a meeting room and passing a note to somebody. I might say to one of my partners, 'Why don't you bring up this particular subject.'"
Shoenfelt agreed that IM makes employees in his company more efficient.
"For example, before we make the phone call, we use IM to ask if they have a second," he said. "It saves the trouble of calling, finding they're not there and getting into voice mail and asking when they'll be available. Another thing that's terrific is that you can chat with somebody no matter where they're located. I work at home, have two offices and I travel. Wherever I am, somebody can see if I'm online and get me on a conversation.
Sometimes, a phone call is, indeed, better, Shoenfelt and Conklin agreed. "And, there's a time for e-mail," Shoenfelt added. "It depends on what information is needed and whether it's a long conversation. Sometimes, if you're in the middle of a long chat session, you'll pick up the phone and call that's easier."
Selecting the Right Product
Many widely used IM products are available free. Conklin said she and her colleagues tried several of them before settling on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). She settled on AIM because, besides being free, it provided the most reliable connection.
In addition, a recent AIM upgrade added the ability to save chat sessions. "We'd have conversations about a client and, before, there was no way to save the conversation. Now, we can save it so we have a permanent record."
Shoenfelt, who heads his company's technology effort, deployed a product called IBM Lotus Sametime, which is aimed specifically at businesses. A commercial product, the price of Sametime varies widely depending on the number of users.
Why spend money for IM when it is available free and are easy to install and use? Typically, you download free products from the Internet, install them on your PC, set up an account and you're good to go, a process that usually takes only a few minutes. By contrast, besides paying for software like Lotus Sametime, installing and maintaining it requires time and effort by information technology personnel. That's why such products typically have been deployed by large enterprises.
"It comes down to the issue of control," Gartner's Hayward noted. "If you use a consumer service like AIM, it's potentially accessible to everybody, which can be a disadvantage. If you run your own system, you can control who has access to it and control the communication flows."
You also can provide better security since the enterprise software, such as Sametime, is located on a server inside your company's firewall. That protects it from access by unauthorized people.
Conklin said, however, that she wasn't concerned about security.
"We don't use it to send credit card numbers or passwords or anything like that," she said. "We don't even use it to transfer files since our firewalls didn't allow the transfer to take place."
Some managers worry that using IM for business is an invitation for employees to goof off. After all, IM is most widely used for leisure-time pursuits. But most agree that shouldn't be an issue for your business
"Concerns about who is chatting with whom are overblown," Gartner's Hayward said. "It's no different than using the personal phone for personal phone calls. Most people are sufficiently honest that you can ignore that issue most of the time."
"It's pretty much all business," Conklin said. "We don't have the chatty kind of stuff at all." Shoenfelt agreed.
"It's ultimately a management issue," Shoenfelt said. "People have a job to do and they either do it or they don't. If they abuse the telephone, IM or the Internet, they won't get their work done. My attitude is that I work with professionals and they'll get the job done."
Neither Shoenfelt nor Conklin has run a full-fledged return-on-investment study, but both Conklin and Shoenfelt agree that IM improves their companies' performance.
"The savings are pretty significant," Conklin said. "If you save five long distance calls a day over the course of a month, that's pretty good for a small business."
"We're just a small insurance company competing with some big boys," Shoenfelt said. IM helps his company do that by making its employees more productive.
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