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The instant messaging wildfire spreads to the utilities industry.
Utilities are starting to take a good, hard look at incorporating instant messaging (IM) into their business. (Never heard of IM? Check out our primer in the sidebar.)
Constellation Energy, for example, is already using IM in some internal communications, such as within the IT department. According to a spokesman, IT employees use IM to quickly survey their colleagues about how to solve a user problem. Externally, those departments that regularly work with customers, suppliers, and business partners use IM to support those relationships. Overall, Constellation is evaluating expanded use of IM, the spokesman says, but the company first needs to standardize IM on a Microsoft platform.
At American Electric Power (AEP), about 5 percent of the workforce uses IM for internal communications, according to an AEP spokeswoman. Very few employees have external access; the ones who do are primarily those working in the IT department who are remote from users who need IT help.
Power marketers at Kansas City Power & Light at the moment are the sole users of IM there, according to a company spokesman. Traders have two terminals loaded with AOL's software that they use to communicate with other traders about power transactions. According to the spokesman, IM has replaced the teletype system on which power marketers previously relied. The traders at KCP&L are happy with IM because it provides a capability to interact with several parties simultaneously-a function that cannot be accomplished in a typical telephone call, but instead only in a teleconference, which can be logistically difficult to arrange.
Even Cinergy has begun identifying potential vendors and investigating how it might use IM company-wide. According to a Cinergy spokeswoman, the company does not currently condone or support the technology, but recognizes it is a new communications medium. Cinergy's biggest concerns are with security and protecting individual users, she says.
IM already has proven useful to some clients of Enporion, the online marketplace company that serves utilities. George Gordon, chairman and CEO of the Tampa, Fla.-based company, says that during a hurricane warning, their offices closed. But two Enporion employees were able to dial into the company server remotely, and with IM, carry on a previously scheduled auction.
Similarly, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has installed an IM-type of technology to relay alert messages to its workforce. BPA uses a pop-up type of IM that starts up whenever an organization-wide alert is posted, according to Eric Heidmann, a communications computer specialist there.
IM: Not Just for Teenagers Anymore
What IM offers that e-mail, voicemail, and Web sites do not can be summed up in one word: "presence," says David Elfenbaum, principal and vice-president of marketing at St. Louis-based Asynchrony Solutions. As he points out, IM provides a real-time window into virtual people, places, and events. The features that differentiate IM from e-mail are what make it attractive to business users.
IM can eliminate endless voicemail tag, for example. An employee can check to see if a vendor or colleague is online, and presumably near a phone, before returning