The Studio System
Venerable entertainment studio Warner Bros., a unit of AOL Time Warner Inc. based in Burbank, is another creative environment where IM has been allowed to flourish. "What we found," says Anthony Lloyd, Warner Bros. vice president of computer operations, "was that there were many people who had some sort of a chat function to communicate with friends and family." But like Grey Global, there was no gate-keeping mentality in IT to enforce strict software usage standards. "We're an entertainment company," says Lloyd. Employees are allowed substantial leeway, "so long as you're not doing something illegal," he says. However, Lloyd does admit the company is developing acceptable-use policies to control its liability for inappropriate uses of instant messaging.
Through its shift from Microsoft Outlook to AOL Time Warner's America Online and Netscape messaging software, the entertainment studio recently provided instant messaging to its 10,000 users. But because IM was built into the software, the company didn't feel the need to calculate any potential return on investment for IM itself.
Yet despite the popularity of instant messaging for personal uses, Lloyd reports that few employees are actually using IM in their daily work. "It's not looked at as a critical path for how we do business," says Lloyd. "The culture here at the studio is that IM is more of a novelty, because you don't have history, versus an e-mail chain."
The tactic at less free-wheeling operations has typically been more cautious. St. Agnes Healthcare, a Baltimore-based hospital, now has 800 users running an instant messaging software application created by WiredRed Corp. called e/pop. "Even though we have a clinical system in place that tells us there's a bed available, if someone comes into the ER, it's easy to send an e/pop and ask if there's a bed free," says Jonathan Schoemann, technical support engineer at St. Agnes. "This way, instead of doing 15 phone calls to see who's got a wheelchair, you just do one IM, and they say, 'We've got it, we'll send it down,'" says Schoemann.
Because of its low cost, St. Agnes' IT department didn't bother to compute the service's ROI ahead of time. "For the big players in the game, such as Microsoft Corp. and Novell Inc., [whose systems] cost an extreme amount of money to deploy," says St. Agnes IT director Larry Lawson, "we would have probably wanted to justify [the expenditure]. But with the cost of WiredRed's product, it's not something that's going to break your budget right from the get-go. It's something that most healthcare providers can afford, and you do not have to pay a consultant to come in and do an ROI [estimate] for you."
That's why St. Agnes' IT professionals took it on faith that the service was worth providing. "It's hard to quantify exactly what you're getting," says Lawson, "but you're getting an increase in productivity from everyone who uses this. If they don't have to go through the phone book, they can communicate more quickly. They don't have to go around the hospital looking for wheelchairs; they can send an IM and get an immediate response." Lawson is emphatic about the payback. "Time is money, time is production, and with the shortage of nurses that everyone is having right now, it plays a big part."
That ease of communication is the main reason IM is becoming so widespread in U.S. businesses. A recent report from Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. claims the number of instant messaging users in the workplace has risen by 34 percent over the past year, to 13.4 million, just under 10 percent of the U.S. workforce. But David Ferris, founder and president of Ferris Research in San Francisco, believes that IM use at businesses with 500 or more employees hasn't exploded yet. "We think it's quite small—between five million and 10 million corporate users," he says. "We keep expecting it quickly to expand, and it hasn't. But by 2007, we'd expect on the order of 200 million corporate users worldwide."
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