Banning Social Networks a Losing Battle

IT executives from a variety of industries concede that social networks are here to stay, but they are still working to find ways to give employees what they want and protect the company at the same time.

The increased use of Facebook and MySpace has caused some companies to reassess their electronic use policies, with some organizations banning social networks outright over worries about security and drags in productivity, according to several IT executives contacted by CIO.

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Mark Lappin, director of IT for Lee Michaels Fine Jewelry (which owns eight retail shops in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi), says he banned Facebook because it was a huge productivity drain, especially for the younger members on staff.

"Some were spending 4-5 hours a day on it," Lappin says. "As soon as we shut it down, we saw a huge increase in productivity. Reports that had been taking four hours started getting done in two hours."

The reaction by Lappin to social networks mirrors that of other IT practitioners dealing with the disruptive changes brought on by the explosion of consumer technologies in the workplace. In CIO's annual consumer technology survey, slightly more than a third of the IT decision makers surveyed claimed they "shut down" any unsupported technology as soon as they detect it. In addition, nearly 10 percent of the survey's 311 respondents listed social networks as the top consumer technology threat facing their organizations.

But analysts who follow the social networking space say banning social networks, while the natural reaction, is most likely a losing battle. For one, people always find workarounds, such as visiting their Facebook pages via their iPhones. In addition, employees can use social networks as another means to communicate with customers.

"Isn't this always the knee-jerk reaction of IT and management?" says Jonathan Yarmis, an analyst with AMR Research. "It didn't work in the 1980s [because] there were very good reasons to give workers PCs. It didn't work in the 1990s [because] there were very good reasons to give employees access to the Internet. And it's not going stop the deployment of social networks now. They should be trying to understand why users find the platform attractive and how to leverage it from both an internal communications and a customer-facing perspective."

Weighing the Pros and Cons of a Ban

IT leaders acknowledge social networks can be good for business. "It's a great way to reach customers," says Graeme Thompson, CIO of BEA Systems, an enterprise software vendor. "Like other forms of traditional media, if it draws a large audience, we can't ignore it as a valuable source of feedback from customers."

As result, Thompson can't envision banning social network applications, even if BEA's harbors concerns around the productivity waste and people posting things to their pages that don't represent the views of the company. "Employees post personal opinion which can be misconstrued as the public position of the company," he says.

To address this issue, social networks now fall under the company's appropriate use policy. "Make it clear that employees cannot speak on behalf of the company (unless that is their job) and remind employees about [what is] sensitive content," he says.

IT executives also acknowledge you can never truly ban social networks. Almost all of the sources contacted for this article were Facebook users themselves, and responded to an editorial inquiry sent via CIO's Facebook Forum. "Users will find ways around [a ban]," says Mark Semkiw, VP of IT at First Heritage Bank . "They can use their mobile phone instead, which wastes even more time."

Younger employees and the generation of teenagers who have come of age with social networks as a daily part of their electronic diets know these workarounds well. AMR's Yarmis says the local high school in his hometown of Weston, Conn. banned social networks entirely, which didn't seem to faze the young users, who used IP address anonymizers to get around the block.

Taking Creative Approaches

Many IT practitioners have taken some creative approaches to dealing with social networking applications. Nuno Borges, director of infrastructure at De La Rue, a security and cash printing company based in the United Kingdom, says the company allows users onto social networking sites for 60 minutes a day. They use an Internet filter from Websense to manage access.

"This way, we allow the usage but control the people that spend all day in Facebook," says Borges, who added that the time limit also applied to other social media sites, such as YouTube.

Semkiw at First Heritage Bank lets the managers decide if their employees should have access to the sites, and IT responds to their wishes accordingly. Other CIOs have taken an even more hands-off approach, pointing employees towards the appropriate usage policy and reminding them of what constitutes good behavior online.

Howie Spielman, CTO of Ecast, which provides touchscreen jukeboxes to bars and other establishments, says he wants to provide his employees with the ability to maintain work-life balance.

"I'd much rather trust employees to get their work done while still enjoying the ability to check personal e-mail, use social network applications, or shop on Amazon when they have a few free minutes, versus engaging our IT staff in trying to prevent them from doing so," he says.

Talking About Their Generation

Facebook claims users over 25 as its fastest growing demographic. But corporate IT leaders believe younger workers feel the urge to be on social networks during the day much more so than their older counterparts. Before blocking social networks, Lappin of Lee Michaels Fine Jewelry learned that the 40 users who utilized the sites most heavily were 30 and under.

Other companies have also seen the age divide. "A fair number of the management team here are over 40," says Spielman of Ecast. "I have a hundred or so professional contacts on LinkedIn, but my nieces and nephews in High School and College probably have 10 times as many friends on Facebook. If we just ban such things to our younger employees, how could we ever hope to understand it from their point of view? And what would it mean to those people destined to become our customers soon?"

IT executives who have embraced social networks say it's important to have an education program for employees (of all ages) that encourages proper decorum, security awareness and understanding of what's appropriate on social networks while employees are on the clock.

"You want to balance risk with wise protection and plenty of education," says Ernest W. Lehmann, CTO of Noyes Memorial Hospital in Dansville, N.Y. He allows the 500 employees of the hospital onto social networks, but logs online activities and blocks certain content categories.

The message from companies who manage consumer technologies effectively in the enterprise is simple: be fair, and in most cases your employees will pleasantly surprise you.

"Banning this kind of technology is the safest, most efficient and 'IT common sense' thing to do, but it's not realistic," says Thompson of BEA Systems. "The devices, and social computing sites are here and our employees will bring them into the enterprise. If you ban it, then you are really just sticking your head in the sand and losing an opportunity to manage it."

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