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Instant messaging is heads above e-mail and the telephone for employees at MacDill Federal Credit Union-but only in select departments.

For the 15 employees of the Information Technology (IT) and Electronic Services departments at MacDill who work mostly at home, Instant Messaging (IM) is the more efficient mode of communication, explained Steve Slawin, assistant vice president of electronic services at the $1.6-billion credit union.

"If you can get up and walk to someone's desk and ask a question, IM isn't really necessary," he said. "IM fills a void in environments where staff doesn't share the same facility."

MacDill uses the IM product that is part of Novell GroupWise 6.5, a collaboration tool that also includes e-mail and scheduling. The suite is secured by Secure Sockets Layer, Secure Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension, Public Key Infrastructure, Transport Layer Security, anti-spam and anti-virus technologies.

IM is so good that Slawin said telephone communication isn't necessary anymore for his telecommuting colleagues to do business. E-mail is still a "strong requirement," but IM is a "necessity," he said.

Not many U.S. companies are using corporate IM products. Only 18% of 50 Fortune 500 companies deploy IM products to support employee communication, according to a study by Wellesley, Mass.-based Nucleus Research.

Asked why he thinks IM has been slow to take off, Slawin answered, "IM may be looked upon as not being a serious business application, having been stigmatized by the popular culture use of IM. And there has to be a business reason to implement IM, which in my situation is defined by employee proximity."

First Community Credit Union of Houston had its own reasons to launch IM. The 200 employees of the $445-million CU use IM across eight locations.

Employees had been downloading consumer IM products to enhance their work processes- but the free applications were a threat to network security, according to Rito Garza, director of Network Operations at First Community.

Garza installed WiredRed Software's e/pop Basic product inside the CU's firewall, thus legitimizing IM at First Community, he said.

Back at MacDill FCU, Slawin enjoys the efficiency of IM tools. Instead of exchanging up to about 40 e-mails per day per person-clogging up the e-mail server with routine FAQs-the employees now communicate with one another via IM pop-up windows, Slawin continued.

"We are thus keeping the transitory type of messages within the appropriate medium," he said.

Instant messaging allows employees to have frequent conversations without tying up a phone line and without depending on a string of e-mails to maintain the gist of a discussion, said Slawin. "Instant messaging is a good balance between conducting an all-day telephone conversation and the less immediate nature of e-mail," he said.

Employees don't abuse IM, Slawin said. Conversations mainly focus on credit union matters, he said.

"By far, the majority of the communications we do are business-related and are little different than a conversation you would have with a coworker in the next cubicle," explained Slawin. "GroupWise doesn't offer the more frivolous features, such as sounds, music and icons. It's a corporate product, and it's more geared toward a corporate environment."

With only 15 of MacDill's 460 employees working via pop-up windows, IM use at MacDill is "very limited. But we are considering other areas of the credit union where the product would be useful, such as the member contact center," Slawin said.

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