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 a call. Similarly, a caller can send an instant message to a person he needs to call, asking if it's a convenient time.
Teens are infamous for having four or five IM conversations going at once. That seeming frivolity can actually work for utility companies, too, particularly in the area of customer service. Using IM as a customer support tool on a Web site costs roughly one-fifth as much as equivalent phone support, Elfenbaum says. Rather than a one-to-one model for customer service, IM enables a one-to-many model, in which representatives can talk to as many as five customers simultaneously.
IM also can be used by an employee to gather information from colleagues while on the phone with a vendor or client. For example, during a phone negotiation with a vendor, a buyer can message colleagues about past purchase trends, prices, and other vendor offers, and use that information to further the negotiations. Such use eliminates the need for multiple follow-up calls.
Businesses also can install context-sensitive IM on their Web sites, according to Elfenbaum. Context-sensitive means that if a visitor is viewing pages about hours of operation, bill payment history, and the like, the IM link will initiate a conversation with a customer service representative. But if a visitor is checking out pages on the investor relations part of the site, the IM link will initiate a conversation with the appropriate investor relations staff member.
Of course, installing IM with such bells and whistles doesn't come nearly as cheap as the free, public versions available from AOL and others. Larry Perlstein, managing vice president of Gartner, notes the wide range in cost for installing IM enterprise-wide, from $500 to $50,000. The pricing models for IM are changing rapidly, he says, as corporate interest is increasing. Perlstein pegs the cost of a basic IM enterprise installation as about the same as e-mail. The bottom line, he says, is that if companies want more control of IM, they must pay for it.
Securing Corporate Comfort With IM
Much as early use of Palm Pilots did, IM use without a corporate policy can increase productivity, but also expose the enterprise to security risks.
When security-conscious companies discover IM use inside the firewall, their first move often is to simply shut down access. Denying access, though, won't necessarily spell the end of IM use. Elfenbaum points out that often there are powerful political forces in an organization that very much want to use IM. And, he says, more technically sophisticated employees will often find ways to poke through the firewall.
"The security concerns about IM are real," Perlstein says, "but no more so than with e-mail." A company that has a strong antivirus strategy can probably handle the virus threat that comes with IM, he adds.
Perlstein says that many companies are now evaluating IM, and that he expects a fair number of those companies to adopt it in the next 12 to 18 months. He worries, though, that many companies may deploy IM for internal use only, rather than permitting external communications, too. This would be a mistake, in Perlstein's view, because it would inhibit IM adoption and deny the enterprise the entire range of IM functionality that has fueled its virus-like growth.
Both Perlstein and Elfenbaum say that the knee-jerk reaction of companies to severely limit IM access is very reminiscent of the early days of e-mail. Eventually, companies saw the value in allowing employees to reach out to those outside the company. They predict the same will happen with IM, but probably much more quickly than it did with e-mail-in maybe 12 to 18 months' time.
While no single IM use adds dramatically to organizational efficiency and productivity, it's important to keep in mind that small percentage improvements can make a tremendous difference to a company overall, Elfenbaum says. Much like e-mail has improved the operations of most companies, so too can IM. FWIW.
IM is a cousin to e-mail-a very fast cousin. Rather than traveling over servers, the free, so-called "public" versions (available from AOL, Yahoo!, and MSN, among others) send text communications directly between two or more computers. That translates into about four seconds from sending to receipt, making IM a nearly real-time communications vehicle.
The speed of the medium has created a growing lexicon of abbreviations and acronyms, to facilitate the fast, free-wheeling chats. "Four" becomes "4," "u" replaces "you," and "ctn" stands for "can't talk now"-useful when a deadline looms. (A nice lexicon is available at http://www.bigblueball.com/im/acronyms.asp)
IM's tiny window size on the screen-only a few inches of space on the desktop-belies its enormous functionality. In addition to sending messages, IM users can also send files and pictures. One of the key features of IM is the ability to see who is online and available for a conversation. Through the so-called "buddy list"-AOL's term, but often used generically-a user can see which correspondents are online, and which are not. Buddy lists typically are created by the user; once the user knows a buddy's "handle," she can add that name to her list of co-workers, family, or other categories. Users can also post an "away" message to let potential correspondents know when they plan on returning to their desks.
In addition to the public versions, IM is also available in enterprise installations. Enterprisewide installations of IM offer security features such as encryption, and control over many aspects of IM, including message logging, filtering, and permissions. IBM offers Lotus Sametime, and AOL is beta testing its AIM Enterprise Gateway product. The other public version companies are also expected to offer enterprise products in the near future.
One of the pitfalls of IM, at the moment, is that the various services are not interoperable. That is, someone using AOL's service cannot IM users of Yahoo! Messenger, for example.
The problem is not a lack of ability to connect the different versions, but a lack of willingness on AOL's part to allow access to its huge database of users-about 80 percent of the IM market.
Programs such as Trillian link all three services together in one window, rather than requiring a window dedicated to each platform; users must still have an account with each provider, however, to make use of such consolidation programs. Other companies that offer ways to integrate IM platforms include IMICI.com, which offers an enterprise-class, secure version, and everybuddy.com, which offers an individual user version. -J.A.
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