NIST harnesses instant messaging

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently launched a Web portal with enterprise instant messaging designed to improve collaboration among its Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) consultants.

The consultants work with small to midsize manufacturers to help them achieve best business practices and win sales in the global marketplace. There are more than 400 MEP centers nationwide. The instant messaging (IM) system from Bantu Inc. lets the consultants, who are called Professional Business Advisors, see when colleagues are online and interact with them in real time.

The technology is intended to serve as the online equivalent of the office water cooler.

"We use [IM] to build relationships across [consultants], so people from different cities across the U.S. can operate as if they were next door," said Melissa Kelly-McCabe, an adviser in NIST's program. "We can use it to create a virtual conference room, where [advisers] addressing the same situation can gather and work together. We can also poll the people who are online to see if any of them can help with a particular problem."

NIST officials wanted to provide a secure IM product, uncluttered by commercial advertisements, that would be internal to its portal and integrate well with the look and feel of its site, said Rick Korchak, information technology practice area manager for the program.

The integration of secure IM with the portal (www.360vu.net) is also another step toward NIST's larger mission to streamline the MEP program by providing a centralized, standard set of resources and services to its consultants, some of whom are independent contractors.

The portal is "the source for all official, branded products, services and knowledge for all MEP centers nationwide," Korchak said.

There is a companion MEP Center site (www.360vu.com) that provides business development information to the manufacturers who use the program's advisory services. This site does not offer IM.

NIST has worked with YellowBrix Inc., the prime contractor for the portal, to integrate Bantu's software into the site.

Full integration is still in progress. Bantu provided the agency with a starter directory for the initial deployment of its software, but Kelly-McCabe said more robust directory services will be added that can, for example, allow for more descriptive information when identifying IM users to one another.

Because advisers are discussing customer information as they exchange messages, they want to be sure their exchanges are protected. Bantu provides security in its platform by utilizing Secure Sockets Layer encryption.

One of the benefits of Bantu's IM platform is that it integrates easily with other applications through a suite of programming interfaces based on Extensible Markup Language, according to Larry Schlang, Bantu's president and chief executive officer.

YellowBrix designed the portal as an overarching workgroup collaboration and document management system.

"It is based on artificial intelligence that provides advanced information- retrieval technology with contextual classification of information," said Jace Wieser, YellowBrix's senior vice president and chief technology officer.

The company plans a number of enhancements to the portal, including assessment tools that generate a survey of manufacturing companies, score the results and provide recommendations. The tools would then plug the reports into the Web site.

Gerber is a freelance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.

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Bantu Inc., which provides the enterprise instant messaging product that the National Institute of Standards and Technology uses, is working on a number of enhancements to its software.

Among them are:

* An alerts feature for instantly notifying users of significant events, such as a call for a meeting. Users will be able to respond to specific alerts.

* A logging feature that will record and store online conversations among Bantu users to enhance knowledge management.

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