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Mobile Messaging, the Enterprise Way

I have a couple of daughters studying abroad this semester, and one of the things we did before they departed was set up a WhatsApp group (which for me and my husband meant downloading the app in the first place). As a family, this would be our default for communicating without worry about cost, complexity, or compatibility across our mix of Android and iOS devices.

It's worked wonderfully (maybe a little too well when one or the other forgets that 10 a.m. her time is 3 a.m. for us), and in the months the girls have been away, we've even created a second, larger group that includes their grandparents (with their Windows phones) and other relatives. Limited as my experience is, I can easily see why WhatsApp and other messaging apps of its ilk have found their way into the enterprise.

UC clients may be great at supporting instant messaging among internal and external colleagues working from desktops, but for the most part that paradigm hasn't made a successful shift to the mobile device, as Michael Finneran, regular No Jitter contributor and chair of the Mobility track at Enterprise Connect, is wont to tell us (see his most recent post on the topic, "Do You Really Need a Mobile UC Client?"). Why bother jumping through corporate hoops for app approvals or limiting your group's productivity when a quick download will do the trick?

I've got a cautionary tale to share for anybody in IT who doesn't think they need to get ahead of this kind of thinking. It came to me from Anurag Lal, CEO of Infinite Convergence Solutions, who told me about a large tech firm that came, belatedly, to NetSfere, its cloud-based enterprise messaging service.

At this company, Lal related, a regional sales team took it upon itself to set up a WhatsApp group so everybody on the team could easily exchange information about requests for proposal (RFP) on which it was working. Using WhatsApp, about 25 people regularly discussed critical decision points like pricing, architecture, and so on. After a year or so, one of the salespeople left the company for a competitor, but because WhatsApp was not under IT's control, the typical enterprise processes for removing access never kicked in... and this former employee could continue watching all the communications going back and forth on the RFPs.

Not good. But not unusual, either.

Infinite Convergence regularly deals with IT execs looking to give employees the same ease of use they have found with consumer messaging apps but in an enterprise-grade package complete with requisite security, compliance, and administrative controls, Lal said. In the case of that tech firm, had it an enterprise-grade messaging service that integrated with the corporate directory, such as NetSfere, the same process used to remove the user's email and other access-based accounts would apply to the messaging app as well. And, with admin controls, IT could have remotely wiped the messaging app from the user's phone.

With a messaging service like NetSfere, IT also gets complete control of the way in which data gets encrypted and stored, for how long, and who is allowed what set of features within the app itself. Infinite Convergence also offers the ability to fallback to SMS for global users trying to work in areas with poor data coverage. That's an optional feature, however, since those messages wouldn't be secured, Lal said.

Enterprises need protection from their employees, many of whom -- even after all this time -- remain clueless or cavalier about how vulnerable IT can be to threats. At this year's Enterprise Connect conference in Orlando, Infinite Convergence did a quick poll of attendees about mobile messaging services. While half of its respondents said their preferred mobile messaging platform is secure, 69% said they're not using a company-selected platform.

IT needs to address this disconnect, but I agree with Lal when he says the fix can't come via a corporate moratorium on mobile messaging. Fortunately, he said, many enterprises are starting to recognize that banning mobile messaging isn't the right answer. As the saying goes, "Nature finds its way," he added.

IT absolutely must find a way to support mobile messaging or team collaboration apps like Slack -- as my colleague Eric Krapf, GM of Enterprise Connect, discussed last week in a No Jitter post -- in a way that both meets users' needs and keeps the enterprise safe. Trouble may well be afoot for those that don't, and it may rear its ugly head at any moment in the form of a security breach, compliance shortfall, or e-discovery challenge.

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