Remember Pointcast? Launched in February 1996, its so-called push technology was designed to "push" content such as news and advertisements through users' Internet connections. Trouble was, it gobbled up so much local network bandwidth that corporations nationwide banned its use. The history of business computing is littered with such "grassroots technologies." Some, like client/server computing and desktop PCs, went on to become the dominant corporate IT architecture; others, like Napster, became part of the fossil record, a technology cart with no business-purpose horse.
Napster also has the dubious distinction of being an early version of peer-to-peer technology, software that commonly allows two or more computers to communicate directly without having to depend on intermediate servers. But another peer-to-peer offering, instant messaging, may not only provide the opportunity to offer a valued service to end-users at minimal cost, but may demand so little upfront analysis that many IT executives won't even have to calculate its return on investment before starting pilot programs.
Like many grassroots technologies, some industries are more receptive to instant messaging than others. One arena where instant messaging seems to have found a receptive audience is in creative services arenas such as advertising and entertainment. "We're just starting to look at peer- to-peer technologies," says Ed Cannon, executive vice president and CIO of Grey Global Group Inc., the New York-based holding company that includes advertising giant Grey Worldwide. "We have about 4,000 users, and I would imagine there's probably anywhere from 5 percent to 10 percent of our population using IM at this point."
But the company has yet to roll out its own sanctioned instant messaging service. "Our teams are dispersed at different offices around the country, and in some cases at different offices around the world," says Cannon. "One thing we're concerned about with IM is that viruses can come in that way. But we also have the philosophy of letting some things grow out in the field and then seeing how we can make it part of our overall culture."
In fact, says Cannon, he'd rather let IM grow on its own for a while. "My personal opinion is, when you're in a professional services organization, the ability to track down information and to interact contributes to the overall productivity of a professional. The easier we make that interaction, the better professionals we have overall," he maintains. "If you're giving employees technologies that give them a better professional and personal life, it's a better result for the company. People are just balancing work and life, and we look at the technology as a way to help them achieve that balance."