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Video instant messaging: a misunderstood KM disrupter

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Due to ever-falling costs, high-availability data connections, smart mobile devices and the growth of cloud computing, knowledge management and enterprise collaboration in general are undergoing something of a rebirth. Yet most enterprise collaboration remains centered on documents and knowledge workers, largely reflecting the status quo of the designers of such systems. KM and enterprise collaboration systems largely fail to address the reality that laptop-glued knowledge workers represent a very small percentage of the overall global workforce. They have yet to fully meet the much bigger opportunity to extend beyond document-centric tasks to other collaborative, linear, process-oriented (yet still knowledge-based) work. Simple-to-use video instant messaging (VIM) technology may well prove to be a key catalyst for that much-needed shift.

As of today, most enterprise use of video falls under the following areas:

  • team conferencing,
  • customer interaction/service support,
  • pre-recorded-corporate communications, and
  • an alternative to text for training/education.

Beyond those areas, VIM functionality is just starting to arrive in the enterprise, as it drifts in from the consumer world. And just as in the consumer world, VIM can be divisive—some love it and feel it helps create a better "human connection," and others hate it and claim that it invades their privacy (see sidebar that follows article and also appears on page 9 of the March Issue). In fact, the most common arguments in favor of and against the use of video are surprisingly similar to one another and suggest a cultural split that can be difficult to bridge or even manage.

Video instant messaging, as its name makes clear, is potentially the most invasive use of video in the enterprise. It conjures up images of unexpected video calls on an active laptop coming from an angry boss, with the recipient of the call being unshaved, undressed or otherwise unprepared. (Extreme, you might think, but this is not something anyone would want to experience.) We at 451 Research question if one-to one, face-to-face discussions are the most optimal use of such real-time technology. Our analysis tells us that while that is how vendors are currently positioning VIM, there are potentially much more valuable ways of using the technology.


This article looks at VIM as a distinct and separate function to video conferencing or Web conferencing. Indeed, in our analysis, confusion over those different disciplines and the negative experiences associated with them has in part limited the perceived value and use of VIM; hence, some definitions may be in order. Download chart.

  • Video conferencing is when multiple people—typically four or more, in more than one geographic location—use audio and video technology to connect via a virtual conference room environment to conduct a pre-arranged meeting.
  • Web conferencing (or webinar) is where multiple users watch a single remote screen; this method is typically used for one-to-many presentations.
  • Video instant messaging (VIM) is distinct from the other two in that the interactions are typically one-to-one and are also most typically not pre-arranged, but rather they are ad hoc in nature.


VIM is not particularly new, but its use (and misuse) has until quite recently been largely confined to the consumer world. We are now starting to see some KM players such as Citrix, TIBCO and Teambox adding VIM to their product suites because VIM functionality is particularly relevant in the mobile era: Almost all handheld devices contain cameras. This is key to understanding the value of VIM, since it's not so much the video as the mobile camera that has much potential.

Future use cases for VIM technology will be situations where a physical object or environment needs to be collaboratively viewed. For example, in a service situation, a technician is looking at a complex wiring structure and using a mobile device to stream video of the situation to a remote expert, enabling them to share visuals to resolve the situation. Similarly, designers and creative people can discuss and view samples and compare options in real time. In situations like those, the ability to share a clear real-time moving image of the in situ environment via a handheld device can be invaluable, and a highly efficient use of collaboration technology.

New horizons

For traditional knowledge workers, there is a somewhat parallel use case in that they often want to share a document, drawing or whiteboard in real time with a colleague. Again, it's about seeing the same thing and collaborating on that "thing." We envisage VIM having a valuable role to play supporting (for example) collaborative processes in areas like law enforcement, healthcare and engineering. The focus on knowledge workers who create reams of text-based communications and want to occasionally see one another from their home offices is an established use for video ... and for most vendors, it is the primary focus of usage.

But as collaboration applications are increasingly available and accessed on mobile handsets, that makes for something of the classic paradigm shift. Moving from a fixed camera position to a fully mobile situation opens the technology to many more uses. Tie the video stream back to all the key management and productivity functions-such as calendaring, expertise location, file access edit and view, knowledge sharing, and team and project management/support-and new horizons beckon.

To reach those new horizons, though, this sector needs to look beyond the generic platform and start solving real-world business problems. There has long been a Silicon Valley tendency to design systems that make Silicon Valley workers happy and excited. Outside the Bay Area bubble, however, there is a much bigger world of work that keeps the water running, the heating on, the shelves stocked, and people fed and cared for. The next generation of collaborative business applications will embrace those human needs, and some of the vendors mentioned in this article could be early movers—and big winners—if they expand their field of vision to appreciate the enormity of the opportunity, and at the same time narrow their focus to notch some quick wins.

Three priority areas

On a more tactical level, it will be important to see the following three areas become more of a priority for collaboration vendors.

First, existing KM vendors must look beyond creating generic enterprise suites for knowledge workers. Vendors should focus on tying collaboration and knowledge sharing back to clearly defined business processes that involve human interaction. They need to take existing technology and configure it to meet vertical-industry needs, and also use VIM to engage with work objects and environments, rather than simply using it as a face-to-face conversation tool.

Second, persistence is an important issue with which many vendors struggle. In enterprise situations, communications can't simply die in the ether once someone hangs up. Whether with video or text or voice, the trail needs to be kept traceable, and the files and data created should be contextualized and made relevant. We expect documents to be retained intact until we make an executive decision to remove or destroy them, depending on governance, housekeeping and compliance requirements. That option should be available for video and other forms of interaction. It's a governance issue that could be made easier if enterprise collaboration vendors considered information lifecycle and persistence issues as a priority, and built in such features as standard.

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