MLR

Manage Instant Messaging and Minimize Risks

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Along with texting on cell phones, Instant messaging (IM) has become a must-have tool for many organizations and their employees.

Technology researchers note that IM often helps employees benefit from increased productivity and faster decision-making. Other advantages include:

Lower phone bills. Using IM to communicate with employees and clients in other regions or countries can trim your long-distance phone costs. In addition, IM systems can be used with cell phone texting and wireless laptops.

Easy, inexpensive collaboration. Colleagues can collaborate from various locations without conference calls or having to congregate in a meeting room or at some central location. Most programs offer a conference setting where a work group can meet and jointly discuss business. Most also support voice conversations and video.

Reduced spam. IM systems get considerably fewer unwanted messages than e-mail.

Non-disruptive communication. During a conference telephone call with, say, a business contact or with colleagues, employees can discuss strategy or clarify points privately among themselves.

Crisis management. IM often is the fastest and most efficient way to disseminate information during an emergency or crisis. It is often available when phone service has been knocked out or the lines are jammed.

Customer contact. Your business can provide immediate sales information, fast service and problem-solving using IM. For this to work in a timely manner, of course, customers must be online to receive the messages. However, even if they are not, they will get the message when they sign in.

The technology also has disadvantages and your company should come up with policies to deal with them.

For example, while IM can boost employee productivity, it can also lower it. Instant messages are similar to personal phone calls, so they can easily turn into a long chat with friends or family. Employees can’t be overheard chatting and may appear to be working diligently at their keyboard while in reality they may be planning a party. Staff members should be told that IM is for business, not personal, use.

But there are more serious disadvantages, such as:

Computer network attacks. Most IM services let users send and receive file attachments, and that can present a significant threat to your business’s network security. As with e-mail attachments, files sent through IM can contain destructive viruses, Trojan horses, and worms.

Theft of identities and confidential data. Because it’s so easy to create an IM identity, the technology is ripe for scams. Cybercriminals use many methods to gain trust and gather information, including hacking and impersonation.

Corporate liability. Your company has a legal responsibility to ensure a work environment that is harassment-free. If an employee uses IM to harass an individual or send inappropriate comments, your company could face legal liability.

Most free instant messaging systems have security features that are limited to basic password protection and lists of allowed and blocked users. IM providers do occasionally add security features, so your technology staff should regularly search for and download patches and updates.

If you have enough technology employees, they can likely set up a system to protect your company’s computer network. Otherwise, you can search for third-party vendors who can provide a system that will meet your company’s needs and be able integrate IM into other parts of the network, such as e-mail. Third-party security systems can also include virus-scanning protection, and content filtering, as well as encryption and authentication tools.

Your organization’s IM management strategy should be included in the Acceptable Use Policy that covers PCs, e-mail and other corporate assets. (See right hand box for suggestions on what to include in your company’s IM policy.)

Sensible Use of IM

The use of IM by employees is fundamentally a matter of common sense. The same rules that apply to e-mail and other corporate technology should be applied to instant messaging.

In addition to teaching employees to never send harassing or inappropriate comments to colleagues over IM or e-mail, train them to avoid:

– Sending credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, other personal information or any confidential business information.

– Opening attachments or clicking on Web links sent by someone they don’t know. (Even if they know who sent the link, they should let the cursor hover over it to determine whether the Web address seems legitimate.)

– Transferring files unless there is no alternative.