11 March 2008

To Ban or Not to Ban: Social Networks Stir Workplace Issues

To ban or not to ban social networks at workplaces is an ongoing dilemma facing many CIOs, IT directors, and senior executives in numerous organizations. Despite the growing popularity and potential benefits that can be gained by embracing social networks for business applications, more companies are blocking access to social-networking sites. Currently, a third of employers in the US are restricting access to social-networking sites, according to security firm ScanSafe.1 About 32% of ScanSafe''s customers block access to social networks, with MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn the networks that are blocked the most.

Darin Stahl, research lead at Info-Tech Research Group, Inc., in London, Ontario, said only 46% of the IT managers at the 200 companies polled by his firm explicitly block access to social-networking sites, 49% tolerate employee use of such sites, and 3% actually encourage use.2

The emergence of mobile social networks, however, could sidestep attempts by companies to prevent employees from accessing social-networking sites on the grounds that it wastes company time.

Businesses that block social networks do it primarily for three reasons:3

  1. Security concerns -- as discussed above, several worms, viruses, and Trojans have targeted these sites, and hackers have also succeeded in manipulating user profiles and stealing user login information. Some users maintain login information for their social networking sites that is identical (or similar) to the login information they use for their corporate network access. Businesses fear that intruders' knowledge of user's social-network login information might open the door to intruders to corporate network/information, leading to security breaches.

  2. Productivity loss -- next to security concerns, employee productivity was cited as a major concern. Many employers view social networks as something that wastes their employees' time, with very little to do with most employees' work or with their business operations.

  3. Bandwidth "hog" -- a typical social-networking Web site will display content from various sources on the Internet, forcing many DNS requests from corporate servers. For example, while a typical news site with an advertisement might call for about 15 DNS requests, a social-networking site might call for 350 or more. The cumulative effect of the traffic can be a significant burden on a company's internal DNS servers and network bandwidth, and this can begin to negatively affect the speed of other Web applications and business transactions.

But, despite security and bandwidth worries, as cited by Stahl above, more than half of IT managers recently polled don't ban employee use of consumer-oriented social-networking Web sites. In fact, half of companies that do allow access to Facebook see it as a valuable networking tool, according to ScanSafe.

With companies like Techrigy, which offers SM2, providing tools for businesses to track employee behavior across the Internet, employers need to maintain a delicate balance, considering issues such as privacy, control over employees, and the benefit to employers of employee participation in social networks.

On the one hand, the blocking of social-media sites continues apace. On the other hand, the adoption of social media in enterprises is on the rise.

Jeremy Burton, president and CEO of Serena Software in San Mateo, California, USA, supports bringing social networks to work. Socializing is good for your business, and your employees could help your business via social media to gain customers' trust and to improve research, product design and development, and innovation.4 If your customers indicate a strong preference for a certain social-media service, it makes sense to give your company a semiofficial presence there, run by real humans, for informal customer service and true public relations.

"No matter what, people will find ways to socialize and share during work hours," Burton says. He encourages businesses to exploit this socializing to their business advantage by arguing, "If your employees are going to 'do it' anyway, why not encourage them to channel their social-media impulses in smart, safe ways that can potentially help your business?"5

Recently, Serena Software launched a program, which it calls its "Facebook Fridays." The program allows its staff of 900 (average age, 41) to spend an hour each week on the popular social-networking site updating their profiles, collaborating with colleagues and clients, and recruiting for Serena. The company has also set up an employees-only group on Facebook as a kind of alternative corporate intranet. It plans to use the portal to exchange documents, update corporate information, and share marketing videos.

The UK's Trades Union Congress has recently outlined its position about how companies should deal with social networks:

We believe that good employers should consider allowing their staff personal use of the Internet in general at the workplace, during break times, provided this is used responsibly and doesn't interfere with work or could compromise the employer's reputation.

Employers may have some valid concerns about the way their employees conduct their personal lives, such as breaches of commercial confidentiality or damaging the company's reputation by slandering co-workers or clients ... [but] we're concerned that some companies may be overreacting to this increased level of knowledge about what their employees say about their work.

If employers help staff with training on IT security and identity theft, those staff will also have a better idea of how to minimize security risks to themselves and their company on social networking.6

Social networks simply reflect the way the younger demographic are communicating, and by ignoring it, rather than embracing it, employers could be making a costly mistake, some argue. These same employers are failing to see what social media can do for them and their brands.

On the home front, some parents are considering banning their children from using social-networking sites. New services are being offered to cater to these household personal markets. For example, the company Razorcom offers a paid service called myspaceWatch that allows parents and others to track activity of users. myspaceWatch.com is a service that allows you to monitor login activity, track profile changes, and keep a running history of up to five MySpace profiles.

I welcome your comments on this issue of the Cutter Edge and encourage you to send your insights on the market in general to me at smurugesan@cutter.com.

-- San Murugesan, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium


1Hahn, Jason. "Social Networking Sites Being Blocked More Often." Digital Moses Confidential, 2007.

2McGillicuddy, Shamus. "Facebook, MySpace Tolerated by Businesses, Survey Says." SearchCIO.com, 3 October 2007.

3Summarized from note 2.

4Burton, Jeremy. "Bringing Social Media to Work." ZDNet Asia, 7 November 2007.

5See note 4.

6UK's Trades Union Congress. "Facing up to Facebook," 2007.

To Ban or Not to Ban: Social Networks Stir Workplace Issues

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