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Offering both convenience and an easy, informal way to exchange ideas and information, instant messaging (IM) is growing exponentially as a corporate communication tool. A 2010 report by a leading research firm indicates that IM accounts are expected to exceed 3.4 billion by 2014, with business users making up a growing percentage of these accounts as organizations recognize that IM allows workers to collaborate in real-time and increase productivity.

Yet a surprising number of companies—even those in regulated industries—don’t have IM usage policies or archiving solutions in place to ensure they stay in compliance. IM data, no matter how unstructured, is still corporate data, and make no mistake, organizations can be called upon to quickly relinquish it for e-discovery purposes.

At the same time, businesses also need to consider the value of the data available within IM conversations. Experts say it is unstructured conversations—such as those offered by IM—that often provide the most useful informational nuggets for the workforce, and capturing those conversations for sharing across the enterprise can prove instrumental over the long haul. Indeed, as the benefits of big data loom large over the enterprise today, IM data can and should be added into the mix of data types that make up the organizational knowledge center.

But, the practice of capturing and archiving IM data is a task that is often overlooked or ignored. That may be because companies don’t know the right steps to get the ball rolling. Below are five quick tips that businesses should consider as they embark upon an IM archiving initiative:

1. Find Out Who is Using IM at Your Company Now—This may sound daunting, but it can be as easy as sending out a short email survey to your staff. (Survey Gizmo, Zoomerang andSurvey Monkey offer free services or trials.) Since any employee can download a free IM client to his or her desktop at any time and your IT department would never know, you’ll need to ask who’s using IM and which clients they are using with each other, as well as with customers, partners and other parties.

2. Standardize—To streamline your IM management as well as the process for auto-archiving IMs, it is recommended that you select one IM client that will work the best for your employees, customers and partners, and standardize it across the company.

3. Make Sure Your IM sessions are Protected—Whatever client you choose, make sure they offer encryption and security standards to protect the messages so they do not risk falling into the wrong hands.

4. Write an IM Policy—Just like emails, IMs may be used as evidence in legal proceedings, and inappropriate personal use of IM can be a drain on your company’s productivity. So, you’ll need to write an IM usage policy that covers the following topics and then require each employee to review and sign it.

Your IM policy should cover:

  • Which IM client should be used
  • What content is not allowed (this usually includes offensive jokes, slanderous comments, profanity, confidential and proprietary business information, etc.)
  • Who employees are allowed to IM: Since IMs can expose your network to viruses, it’s important that employees only exchange IMs with trusted sources and never open unknown file attachments. To keep productivity in check, you can restrict personal IM usage to lunch times and breaks.
  • The penalties for disobeying the policy and how you will enforce those penalties

5. Auto-Archive—IMs are subject to e-discovery, so businesses are required to keep them in the event they are needed in legal proceedings. There are a number of technology solutions on the market that can index and archive all of your IMs and related attachments instantly, and search both emails and IMs in one single location. Auto-archiving is something every business should consider for IM in order to simplify the process of protecting the data, and to ensure that the protection is taking place in order to provide adequate liability and e-discovery protection.

There is clearly a lot more to IM usage in the enterprise than many might think. Organizations of all sizes must not only consider the value of this data, but also recognize the emerging legal risks associated with its use in the enterprise. There is no time like the present to implement protective measures—such as auto-archiving—in order to eliminate labor-intensive data retrieval searches and alleviate costly legal headaches in the future.

About Mike Harold

Mike Harold is vice president of product development for ArcMail Technology, Inc. He has decades of executive experience in early stage business development, corporate strategy, software architecture, product development and project management. Prior to his role at ArcMail, Harold was a senior technical advisor at FedEx, serving as chief architect on several groundbreaking initiatives including the creation of the first enterprise application integration (EAI) architecture and the first Internet-based integration of SAP’s R3 with FedEx’s global shipping and tracking system. He holds patents and patents pending in the fields of encryption, compression, rule-based computing, mobile computing and cloud computing.

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