Now that corporate America is hip to the effectiveness of instant messaging, forward-thinking IT executives are finding even more value in the technology that underlies IM: presence awareness. It's what lets users see whether other people on a network are online, and what their availability is. And vendors are rushing to exploit that interest by incorporating presence awareness in their products.
Ryder System Inc. has 1,700 users on its Lotus Sametime real-time collaboration application and expects to have 2,000 by year's end, says David Baildon, group director of knowledge management. The logistics company is using Sametime's IM capability to eliminate phone tag, reduce travel, and cut long-distance bills by providing a simple way to get time-sensitive announcements out to large groups of employees, let employees multitask while on conference calls, and conduct distance learning.
Baildon is looking forward to using presence awareness widely, too. For instance, when a Ryder call-center representative doesn't know the answer to a question, presence awareness would make it possible for the rep to quickly locate someone with the required expertise, have a brief IM exchange, and ultimately provide a better answer for the customer. Or a dispatcher with an emergency shipment could use presence awareness to find dispatchers who know the locations of the closest trucks with spare capacity.
The value of knowledge management will come from the application-sharing that presence awareness enables, Ryder's Baildon says.
Other vendors are already there. IBM's Lotus Software division is readying a version of Sametime with a toolkit that enables tighter integration with other Lotus software and that can be used to embed presence awareness throughout a company's IT systems. For example, Sametime functionality will be embedded in the next version of Lotus' Quickplace online workspace application. In June, Lotus released a version of its document-management software, Domino.doc 3.5, which incorporates Sametime. Lotus plans in a subsequent release of Sametime to facilitate IM and presence-awareness capabilities for use between companies, says Bethann Cregg, manager of advanced collaboration. Interoperability among IM systems is a concern for technology managers.
WiredRed Software, a maker of business IM applications, last month released a beta version of a developers' kit that lets IT departments build IM and presence awareness into existing applications. And Microsoft is sharing sketchy details about a suite of real-time collaboration services, code-named Greenwich. Expected to be released sometime next year, it's designed to take advantage of Windows .Net server and Active Directory. Greenwich will tie together Microsoft's real-time collaboration efforts in three areas, including contextual presence awareness that can detect the type of device a person is using, says Bob O'Brien, group product manager for Microsoft's Windows .Net Server division.
Ryder's Baildon expects the value of knowledge management will increase when it can happen in real time using the application-sharing capability that presence awareness enables. The relative cost of such benefits is reasonable, he says. Of the $1 million that Ryder is investing in its knowledge-management system, he estimates that less than a quarter is tied to real-time communication.
But presence awareness has its critics. Privacy concerns are sure to surface, focusing on how the technology may be used to monitor workers. And some business-technology executives say that using presence-awareness technology is harder than it looks.
"I'm not a big fan," says Larry Quinlan, CIO at Deloitte Consulting. Regardless of how much control users exercise over who can or can't detect their online presence--and Sametime, like most IM applications, is designed to let users control who can see that they're online--Quinlan says it's asking too much of employees to manage who knows they're online, not to mention the potential for frequent interruptions of work. Quinlan says he fears that if presence awareness isn't used responsibly, it may actually chase people offline.
He also urges caution for those considering extensive IM deployments. "Instant messaging turns out not to be a small support issue," he says, noting that domain-name-system routing, IM routing, and maintaining multiserver IM environments, while not expensive, have proved to make these efforts surprisingly complex. He estimates that Deloitte spent no more than $250,000 on hardware, software, and services while deploying the company's Exchange 2000 instant messager, but the rollout took six months. "This is a technology in transition," he says.
Maybe, but statistics indicate it has momentum in business environments. Many employees are using consumer IM applications on an ad hoc basis for basic communication, and growing numbers of companies are adopting the tools to address specific business objectives. Yankee Group recently reported that 35% of telecommunications companies with more than 100 employees are using IM for customer service. In financial services and retail, the numbers are 31% and 27%, respectively.
Customer support is a logical starting point for many companies. But PeopleSoft's Gupta says that's the tip of the iceberg. "Instant messaging will drive the presence-detection capability that has been missing from the Internet until now," he says.
At public-relations firm Porter Novelli, presence awareness attracted executives to Sametime's IM functionality, says Bob Elloyan, VP and director of enterprise technology. Porter Novelli is deploying an IBM WebSphere Portal Server that will help complete a knowledge-management system that includes presence awareness as an underlying technology. Whenever employees are online and available, their names will be hot-linked to a variety of services, including E-mail, instant messaging, and directory listings that detail their areas of expertise.
So far, Elloyan has deployed Sametime to 200 of 2,500 potential users, and he's fending off additional employees eager to get aboard. That's just fine with him. "What makes a successful deployment," Elloyan says, "is when you have users aggressively adopting a technology and asking for more, rather than having to sell it to them."
The aggressive adoption of IM by businesses means presence awareness will continue to expand, and managers will have to sort out the privacy, payback, and productivity concerns along the way.
-- with Rick Whiting
Photo of David Baildon by Erik Lesser/Getty Images