If you’ve ever used an instant messaging (IM) client then you’re probably familiar with the functionality that such software provides. What you most likely don’t know is that Microsoft has released a new enterprise-ready unified communications platform called Lync. This is the successor to Office Communicator.

Lync has quite a few features but the one that intrigued me the most was called “IM an Expert” (herein abbreviated as IMX). The premise is quite simple really – you need help and are looking for an expert to answer a question you have. Sure, distribution lists/groups, forums, blog posts, etc. are always available but wouldn’t it be great to actually “speak” to someone? Obviously in these times where automation is king having a 1,000+ person call center may not be feasible so using IMX is the perfect fit. It saves valuable time and money but can still provide that instant feedback that you’re looking for.

IMX is comprised of several components which depending upon the needs of your organization may or may not be utilized. They are the following:

  • Bot: The automated service that users communicate with via instant messaging (IM). This handles question processing, expert location, and dialog management.
  • Website: A Website describing the service, where users can also provide profile information, review and answer previous questions, and see their position on the leaderboard.
  • Databases: SQL Server databases containing user profiles, questions, conversations, ratings, and indexed content used in ranking experts.
  • PageCrawler: Automatically crawls the content of web pages listed in user profiles and other web pages specified by the administrator, and stores it in a database table.
  • Indexer: Indexes all available content about a user in preparation for expert finding.
  • Monitor: Ensures the Bot is up and running normally, and sends an email to the administrators if it detects a problem.

While I’m not going to describe how to install and configure IMX (the 87 page Setup and Maintenance Guide is best suited for that) I will mention that the installation and configuration is straight ahead and the documentation that is provided is fantastic. There are step by step instructions outlining the process and if by some means you do encounter a problem, there’s an active community for Lync (e.g. Lync User Groups).

If you’re interested in the workflow of how the primary components work together then the following diagram is for you:

Fast forward to where IMX is up and running and not only do you have IM automation but also a web site for you to ask/review questions. This is a great benefit as all of the questions that are asked by IM’ing an Expert via Lync are searchable and available to be rated. If a question goes unanswered and you know who can answer it, there is an option to forward the question to that person. This is a nice way to help out a fellow colleague and extend the audience reach even further.

The obvious question is how does one receive a question on a particular topic that they feel they’re an expert in? When you sign up for the service you’ll complete a user profile and during that process you’ll provide some keywords that describe your expertise and interests. The more keywords you type, the better IMX can route relevant questions to you. Type the keyword multiple times if you are highly proficient (e.g. "Team Foundation Server, TFS, Scrum, Agile, Visual Studio, TFS, Source Control, TFS," etc.).

If you’re concerned about privacy, don’t be as there are quite a few options to conceal your identity, when and how often to contact you, if transcripts should be stored, group membership, etc. Generally speaking, you’ll want to have at least your name attached to an answer so when you and the rest of your organization access the leaderboard (a web page showing the people who answer the most questions and have high ratings), you’ll receive all the credit that’s due to you. Anonymous, while having its anonymity, does come at a price.

The site can easily be changed and incorporated into an organization’s style and design which will allow a cohesive web experience. The real power is using IMX with Lync so you can get that real-time feedback. By simply using the IM alias that was created (e.g. “imexpert”), a Lync conversation will be started with an appropriate expert. If none is available then the question is saved and can be accessed and answered from the web site.

IMX is an extremely powerful social networking tool that helps the people in your organization who have questions find the people in your organization who have answers and best of all – it’s free! That said, download IMX and start using it today!