Until recently, more than 2,000 employees at SAS, the world's largest privately held software company, were using a hodgepodge of consumer instant-messaging tools that lacked enterprise-level security and robust functionality.

The company rectified that situation by deploying Microsoft Live Communication Server (LCS) and Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 clients. Today, more than 3000 of SAS's 10,000 employees are using the system, which integrates with various applications so co-workers can collaborate from a spreadsheet, a document or line-of-business system, such as CRM.

LCS also integrates with videoconferencing, Web conferencing, phone systems, e-mail, calendar, directory programs and public IM systems to create a presence-enable work environment that's as close to real-time as you can get.

The impact on the business has been dramatic: "It used to be that something would sit on somebody's desk for weeks. It just doesn't happen any more. They move on. They don't sit on decisions," says Suzanne Gordon, CIO of SAS. "People know that if they don't act, the world's going to move on without them."

While SAS initially adopted an enterprise instant-messaging application to make IM more secure, the presence aspect of the application is having a major impact on the way the enterprise collaborates, communicates and operates.

"Presence awareness was sort of the icing on the cake that turned out to be one of the killer applications," says Kevin Angley, who manages the messaging and directory resources group for SAS's IT organisation.

SAS is now 'federating' or connecting its real-time collaboration system with those of its business partners and implementing public IM connectivity to link up with partners that lack an enterprise IM system. "Public IM is secure within our borders to their access to the proxy server within their network," Angley says.

Taking a gamble

Another company that has introduced real-time collaboration and presence-aware tools is Procter & Gamble. The company has 60,000 IM users who are transitioning to a more robust, enterprise-oriented system.

But P&G is taking an interesting approach: It's not forcing collaboration tools on employees; it's creating demand for them. "We are moving from push to pull. We should not mandate tools, but we should let them be adopted," says Filippo Passerini, P&G's CIO and global business services officer.

P&G employees are adopting real-time collaboration because it fits individual work styles and the organisation's collaborative culture. "For collaboration tools to help, they must be completely embedded in the work processes," Passerini says.

The company has a rich history of collaboration, developing its own e-mail system before commercial systems became available. Like SAS, P&G has adopted LCS and Office Communicator 2005. Using Communicator, employees can escalate instant messages to Web conferences through Microsoft Office Live Meeting, which P&G uses as a hosted service.

Spontaneous collaboration

The shift toward real-time collaboration is nudging organisational cultures to accept more spontaneous interaction. For example, the ability to switch from an IM to a Web conference to a videoconference on the fly is changing conferencing from a scheduled to a seat-of-your-pants type activity.

"Web conferences make more sense in an ad hoc context; whereas, before they had to be planned out, laid out, uploaded and then the meeting tended to be more of an event and was, of course, scheduled and prearranged," says Laurie Heltsley, P&G's director of computers and communications services.

The most significant impact of presence is that it integrates collaboration and communication into people's work styles. In other words, rather than abandoning work to initiate an interaction, collaborators can connect directly from within applications.

"Presence will become, more or less, the focal point of the desktop over time," Heltsley says. "And there are some indicators that we're going to drive many more things that used to be off the centre of the desktop to the centre of the desktop via presence. So, for example, video is one of them. Another one is application sharing."

Grace makes the case

For companies on the cutting edge of collaboration, videoconferencing no longer requires walking to a conference room. Those large group systems are becoming presence-enabled and integrated with IM and other desktop tools. For example, buddy lists in Office Communicator and in IBM Lotus Sametime can display group videoconferencing systems from such vendors as Polycom and Tandberg, as well as users of those systems.

W.R. Grace & Co., a chemicals and materials manufacturer, uses Polycom Web Office for presence-aware Web conferencing and logs more than 1000 Web conferences and videoconferences per month.

In addition, a Grace sales and marketing team uses the text chat features of Groove Virtual Office from Groove Networks, now part of Microsoft, to get deals done faster. As its collaborative culture evolves, Grace expects to use IM more extensively throughout its operations.

Intellicare, a subsidiary of PolyMedica, uses IBM Lotus Sametime so that nurses and other health professionals working remotely can collaborate on care decisions through IM. The company, whose customers are managed-care companies and large practice groups, delivers triage and care over the phone to patients and fields more than 40,000 calls per month.

Typically, a hundred nurses are online handling calls while exchanging IM. When a patient describes complex symptoms, the nurse collaborates with colleagues in real time without putting the call on hold. Nurses can also escalate IM to Web conferencing and share a customised triage management application with a pharmacist or doctor to quickly resolve the crisis.

Less hierarchy is more

Collaboration tools improve worker productivity, but they also give remote colleagues a sense of community, whether they're nurses, software developers or marketing professionals.

"They can have almost a water cooler conversation when things aren't busy, find out about each other and talk about each others' lives," says Jeff Forbes, Intellicare's CIO. "Some companies see that as wasting time, but we see it as really key to creating a workplace that has some value and a sense of community for the person."

Intellicare, like many organisations that embrace real-time collaboration, rejects hierarchy. The culture involves connecting with anyone spontaneously, and Forbes says that no employee hesitates to IM or call Intellicare's president.

He, along with everybody else, is typically on and available. "We're respectful of people's time, but it's a highly informal and collaborative organisation," Forbes says. "Somebody has an idea. They want to share it and act on it. And it really fits with the presence model."

Forbes describes Intellicare's real-time collaboration approach as "very inexpensive, very low-impact and very low-maintenance." The company has also made BlackBerries presence-aware so that managers and others can collaborate from anywhere. Version 7.5 of Sametime provides location awareness so that people know whether their colleagues are at work, at home, or elsewhere.

Culturally, real-time collaboration works best in organisations with less hierarchy. That's because a summer intern can theoretically interact with the CEO, if he is online.

SAS CIO Gordon agrees. She views the fact that anyone can talk to her via IM as an executive advantage. She says sometimes people clam up when she walks into their office, because they view her as the CIO.

"With instant messaging, I'm just like one of their peers. You can get a lot of real information that way. That's one of the things I really like about it." She adds that using IM "is almost like having a couple of drinks. It breaks down that inhibition."

Evan Rosen's new book The Culture of Collaboration describes how collaborative companies maximise time, talent and tools to create value.