In many cases, policy requirements will dictate the platform chosen in the first place. For example, a financial firm that faces strict SEC scrutiny might choose a tool like IBM Lotus Sametime, which faithfully records and archives all conversations for compliance purposes.
A less regulated business looking to connect to the outside world might gain more by simply adopting a corporate policy for one of the commercial IM services, like AOL Instant Messenger or Yahoo! Instant Messenger.
The instant messaging ROI
Regardless of the chosen instant messaging solution, employee education on the right instant messaging mix can be critical to seeing a strong unified communications ROI, more so than with other communications platforms.
"It's important for users to understand the importance of one tool over another," said Zeus Kerravala, a senior vice president at Yankee Group.
For example, he said, an instant message is great for getting a quick response back from a person, while an email is often more effective when sending information to a group of people. If available, desktop video can help bridge distances when building corporate relationships.
The "soft value" in improved productivity can be hard to gauge, but it often warrants the investment by itself.
In some cases, that productivity can be translated to dollar savings if pre- and post-implementation metrics are kept, like problem resolution times in a help desk scenario.
Enterprises can actually cut costs, too, by getting the right mix of communications technology. For instance, as employees message one another rather than pick up the phone, long-distance and international calling charges will go down.
Another hard savings can be found in reduced email archiving costs.
Irwin Lazar, vice president of communications research for Nemertes Research, said adopting instant messaging slowed the growth of archived email by 15% to 20% at several companies he has contacted.
That is one hard instant messaging ROI that Ron Willbanks, director of IT at Whataburger Restaurants, is hoping for as he begins trialing adoption of instant messaging with WebEx internally.
Willbanks said that short missives -- the thank you's, receipt confirmations, and quick questions -- often contributed to a surprising amount of email archival overhead.
"I used to see the disk space utilization reports, and a lot of it was relating to Exchange," he said. "It would be a distinct advantage for us to not have to store that much."
Increasing instant messaging adoption
But both hard benefits, like reduced email to archive, and soft benefits, like improved efficiency, require employee acceptance of instant messaging in order to succeed.
Some usage will come naturally, but large-scale adoption may require some prodding.
"The younger workers tend to expect IM and will use it if available," Lazar said. "Older workers often go slower."
To increase usage, Lazar recommended a management imperative: If workers have a question, for example, managers could make themselves available via instant message but not via email.
"That tends to spur adoption," he said.
It also might make the lives of managers a little easier, as research shows that the typical knowledge worker spends more than two hours a day on email.
"If we can get them off of that, maybe we can increase productivity," Willbanks said.
Instant messaging pitfalls
But analysts caution that in addition to educating about the benefits of instant messaging, it's just as important to warn about the dangers.
For example, Kerravala encountered a brokerage horror story at one firm where an employee passed along a buy order to a trader via an instant message. The trader accidentally closed the message before reading it, leaving the customer to wonder, several days later, why the purchase was not made at the desired price.
"Any kind of critical information, don't use IM," Kerravala said. "It's just not confirmed delivery."
He also warned that sensitive data, even if sent over secure connections, was too easy to misdirect accidentally by clicking the wrong name.
"Imagine doing that with sales quotas or a personnel review," he said. Instead, he recommended emailing such information: Though such gaffes are still possible, they are less likely.
Lazar said it was also important to educate employees that -- unlike on a personal instant messaging network -- conversations were not necessarily private and might be preserved for posterity by an internal archiving solution.
"People need to know the archiving and retention policies around instant messaging," he said.
Both experts said that training sessions were appropriate, particularly if the material could be geared toward electronic communications generally, with ongoing concerns highlighted as they came up.
And for helping reduce incidents like the brokerage snafu, Kerravala suggested polling workers for their own horror stories and sharing best practices on an internal document or wiki.