Instant Messaging: The Fourth Mobile Service
By Tim Rea
In today’s competitive business climate, the successful enterprise leverages mobile technologies to make its workforce better, smarter, and faster. But why have so few organizations looked beyond e-mail, voice, and SMS? Despite its near-ubiquitous status in the consumer world, instant messaging (IM) is either not used at all by the enterprise, or more likely, left for ad hoc user adoption.
Either way it is almost exclusively relegated to internal PC-to-PC communication, despite the growing focus on enabling the mobile workforce.Organizations achieved a massive surge in productivity when e-mail was added to the mobile portfolio, enabling flexible working, rapid knowledge-sharing, and improved customer response. But there are still limitations, especially for remote/mobile workers. By adding IM to the mix, and making it truly mobile, the smart enterprise finally has access to the ultimate mobile collaborative platform, one that not only adds traditional text-based chat, but also opens up opportunities to incorporate presence, group messaging, vocal IM (push-to-talk), picture sharing, and location-based services.
The Mobile Global Economy
The ubiquity of mobile communication has transformed the global economy in the past two decades. From Russia to Africa, Europe to the U.S., organizations have looked to leverage increasingly robust and stable mobile technologies to transform logistics, improve the quality of engineering field forces, and enable effective remote working from sales to senior management.
Yet mobile tools still have their limitations: SMS hampers interactivity and messages are not always reliably delivered, especially at peak times; e-mails may provide rapid one-to-many communication, but many field staff are uncomfortable pecking out e-mails slowly on small keyboards; and voice calls can be expensive and are either very intrusive or result in inefficient telephone tag, with users often forced to leave multiple voicemail messages.
Instant messaging, in contrast, is real-time and interactive, yet not intrusive, and delivery is instantaneous. The immediate and interactive nature of the medium has made it extremely popular with consumers, and IM is increasingly used on an ad hoc basis by workgroups within the enterprise. In the business world, however, IM remains primarily an internal PC-to-PC tool used outside the confines of a formal and IT-supported technology toolkit. Indeed, while IM is sometimes part of the corporate communications platform, few organizations have created any robust IM strategy.
There is growing corporate recognition that a mobile IM platform can deliver significant enterprise-level benefits, especially among field forces. Of course, IM solutions can take many forms. And while even basic text chat on a mobile device offers an improvement over SMS by facilitating real-time discussion, some companies have used the IM approach to build a richer platform with wider capabilities including group creation, inclusion of rich data—such as picture—in the IM stream, and the use of vocal IM to make any device push-to-talk capable.
A rich mobile IM strategy can change the way teams interact and collaborate. Instant picture sharing, for example, can enable field workers to gain immediate feedback from colleagues on the best way to address a specific engineering problem. And push-to-talk allows customer service and sales personnel to contact an entire group to ask questions or to find out who is available to call on the customer directly to solve their problem.
A large, multinational manufacturer uses enhanced mobile IM to help its sales team better communicate and meet customer needs. The company’s UK sales team represents more than 40 lines of business. With more than 400 team members representing so many different business units, sharing customer information and communicating across groups became cumbersome. And with business moving so quickly, the company’s CRM system was suffering because updates were slow or inconsistent. As a result, sales contacts in the field were often calling on customers without knowing their history with other parts of the company, or missing opportunities to cross-sell more valuable, complete solutions.
The company deployed mobile IM to improve collaboration and communication across the salesforce and has also integrated the messaging platform and the CRM system so that IM conversations, activities, and results are automatically reflected in the database, making the information far more reliable and helpful. The platform has revolutionized communication within the sales team and afforded everyone across the organization access to updated CRM information. Among the platform’s most-used features is the ability to create geo-tagged customer groups, which has made search and discovery within the sales database and team far more effective and proactive.
Making it Work
While the technology benefits of mobile IM are compelling, the cost associated with deploying at an enterprise level has, to date, been significant—as has been the effort required to offer users any more than basic chat. Organizations have two choices: either opt for a specific platform, requiring dedicated and expensive devices and significant contract costs, or allow staff to take responsibility for their own phone acquisition and contract but rely on publicly-used IM platforms. Not only does this risk personal IM overlapping with corporate communications, but most of the public IM platforms have added mobile accessibility to their platforms as an afterthought, resulting in relatively poor support for mobile IM.
So how can the enterprise exploit the value of instant messaging? The answer is a flexible, extensible solution that can be implemented as a device- and operator-agnostic hosted service. These solutions can also support secure internal communications with optional connections to popular public IM systems, if required, or restrict communications to a specific peer group. This allows IT managers to open up the enterprise to the bring-your-own-device trend, while maintaining corporate oversight over how those devices are used to communicate for business.
With a flexible solution, there is no requirement to invest in a limited range of expensive devices or sign up to expensive network-specific contracts. In fact, there is no need to impose any mobile phone policy at all across the organization: if desired, individuals can make their own phone and network choices and still collaborate effectively via IM either openly or within a securely defined group.
Facing continued pressure to cut costs and improve productivity, organizations need to leverage every opportunity to maximize collaboration and minimize non-productive time. As companies evaluate a range of tools, from expensive, highly tailored location-based services to dedicated push-to-talk solutions in a bid to drive up productivity, technologies that leverage existing infrastructure while adding new levels of functionality make the most sense for the enterprise. By adding the fourth mobile service to the existing communication platform, enterprises can finally achieve true mobile collaboration, on any platform, and deliver real productivity benefits, while reducing costs from day one.