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10 Tips for Using Instant Messaging for Business

Here's the scene: A couple dozen professionals at a big advertising agency quietly type away at computer screens near each other, in an open room devoid of office walls and partitions. An occasional laugh punctuates the silence. But no one is talking. They are communicating with one another almost exclusively through instant messaging (IM). "When I'm visiting this firm, I can't help but notice this [lack of people talking]. Seems odd to an outsider, but this is now pretty much their corporate culture," says Helen Chan, analyst for The Yankee Group, a US-based technology research group, who has friends at the agency.

A technology designed initially for one-on-one personal chats has reached the workplace. Many business people are choosing text-based Instant Messaging over phone calls and email. They prefer its immediacy and efficiency in getting real-time information from partners, suppliers and colleagues working remotely. Instant messaging is essentially the text version of a phone call. At businesses large and small, more and more people are using it to communicate.

For many, it serves as a backstop for e-mail problems and other emergencies — witness the spikes in usage after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Wall Street Journal notes that more than 100 million people are now sending instant messages. In a report, "IM: The Sleeping Giant," technology consultant Gartner Group predicts that by 2005, instant messaging will surpass email as the primary online communications tool. That said, IM will benefit businesses that work in teams or on projects more than it will many retailers, independent professionals and others. That's because IM enhances collaboration, but does not lend itself to opening new relationships. However, aside from the opportunities for time and cost savings, there are risks and downsides to its use. Whether you're a business owner or an avid IM user, or both, here are 10 instant messaging do's and don'ts. 1. Do adopt a user policy for instant messaging.

If you're an owner, your employees need to know whether you view instant messaging as an appropriate vehicle to communicate with, say, customers or business partners. Any policy should contain at least general guidelines for its use. You may not think this is important — unless you know the story about the hedge fund manager who caused a major commotion by allegedly using IM to spread inaccurate rumours about a publicly traded software company. (Word got out, the software company's stock plunged, and the hedge fund manager and his company got into some serious trouble.) 2. Don't use instant messaging to communicate confidential or sensitive information. Take a lesson from the above example. If your company is in the business of providing professional advice regarding stocks, finances, medicine or law, chances are it's not smart to do so through instant messaging. IM is better suited to quick information about project status, meeting times, or a person's whereabouts. 3.

Do organise your contact lists to separate business contacts from family and friends. Make sure your employees do the same. Eliminate even the remote possibility that a social contact could be included in a business chat with a partner or customer — or vice versa. MSN Messenger[link] lets you organise your contacts carefully. 4. Don't allow excessive personal messaging at work. Yes, you make personal phone calls at work, send personal emails, and allow your employees to do the same. But you encourage them to keep it to a minimum and (hopefully) do the same yourself. For instant messaging go even further. Urge that personal chats be done during breaks or the lunch hour — or that the chats generate new customers or revenue to the business.

5. Do be aware that instant messages can be saved. You may think IM is great because you can let your guard down, make bold statements, chastise a boss, employee or co-worker, and have it all wiped away from the record when you are done. What you aren't realising is that one of the parties to your conversation can copy and paste the entire chat onto a notepad or Word document. Some IM services allow you to archive entire messages. Be careful what you say, just like you would in an email. 6. Don't compromise your company's liability, or your own reputation. The courts may still be figuring out where instant messages stand in terms of libel, defamation and other legal considerations.


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