A point-by-point demolition of the latest case for blocking employee access to social media

Posted on December 3, 2010 1:31 pm by | Business | Internal | Social Media

Cross-posted from Stop Blocking

An article by Barclay Communications appearing in a tech publication from Northern Ireland is strident in its insistence that blocking employee access to Facebook is a requirement in the face of so much risk.

“According to a recent MyJobGroup study, over half of the UKs workforce could be trying to check and update their social networking sites in work,” the article asserts.  “As a result social networking has become one of the biggest and most dangerous time wasting activities in the workplace.”

With glee, I’m going to destroy every argument Barclay’s IT services manager, Stephen McPeake, makes. After all, the four “biggest risks” McPeake cites are exactly the four I’ve been shooting down for the last couple years. (In fact, I’m developing an 11-part video series that covers these—along with the benefits organizations can accrue from employee engagement in social networks—that I’ll upload to YouTube as I complete them.)

Productivity

McPeake says: ???Consider an employee on minimum wage, working an 8 hour day, but wasting two hours of that on social networking. In the end that one employee could cost a company up to ??3,000 a year in lost working hours.???

True enough, if that employee…

  • Only puts in eight hours in the office. He doesn’t come in early, he doesn’t stay late. He clocks in at 8 a.m. and leaves at 5 p.m.
  • Never works away from the office. He never takes a conference call, responds to email, or does any other work at home, at the beach, at the park, on vacation. Increasingly, this is a ridiculous assertion, particularly as the Millennial generation enters the workforce with its concdept of “weisure”—the blending of work and leisure both in the office and at home.
  • Engages in online activities that produce absolutely no value to the organization, such as evangelizing product, sharing competitive intelligence, or seeking subject matter expertise that can’t be found inside the organization.

The fact is, productivity stands to suffer if employees can’t connect to Facebook or other networks. The University of Melbourne has produced research that shows productivity increases 9% among employees who are able to acccess the Net for fun during work. That’s better research than the insipid back-of-the-envelope calculation McPeake (and his ilk) has produced.

But productivity from the use of Facebook goes beyond the Melbourne rationale—that spending some time on the Net for fun resets an employee’s concentration, bolstering his ability to get work done efficiently. Last month, a Gartner representative predicted 20 percent of employees will use social networks rather than e-mail as their business communications hub by 2014. Paul Levy, President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, also sees the importance of Facebook as a channel of staff communication, writing that blocking Facebook “creates a generational gap, in that Facebook, in particular, is often the medium of choice for people of a certain age. I often get many useful suggestions from staff in their 20’s and 30’s who tend not to use email.”

So much for productivity. Let’s move on to McPeake’s second risk:

Attacks from hackers

MckPeake says: “Social networking is one of the newest and most effective ways for hackers to gain entry into peoples??? computers. They pose as trusted friends or connections and then send you a private message recommending a site, video or link. Since they are your ‘friend’ you think nothing of viewing, opening or even downloading whatever they are recommending.???

Tell it to the Marines, Mr. McPeake. After all, this past February U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates issued a directive opening social networks on all of the Department of Defense’s networks, enabling everyone from a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to a private in the field in Afghanistan to participate on Facebook and other social channels. The rationale was simple: The DoD decided that the Net was a field of maneuver, not a fortress to be defended. (That’s my favorite metaphor for this whole issue, by the way.)

So how does the DoD protect its network from hacker attacks? After all, whose networks require stronger security than the military’s? Multiple approaches are taken, including strong network protection from infection. According to my contacts in the DoD, there hasn’t been a serious infection since the decision to open the network so soldiers and staff can participate in social networks.

If the U.S. Military can do it, so can your organization.

Frankly, Mr. McPeake’s recommendation to shut down access is nothing more than the easiest, laziest way to protect a network. It’s (obviously) not the only one.

So with network security behind us, it’s time to shift gears and address Mr. McPeake’s third risk:

Data Leaks

The article points to multiple instances of employees compromising intellectual property using social networks, then points out: “Last month many German companies, such as VW and Porsche were so afraid that their employees would give away trade secrets and be less productive with social networking sites that they completely blocked them.”

The stupidity of this argument is so deep it’s difficult to know where to begin. But let’s start with Beth Israel’s Paul Levy who, in the same post cited above, notes that confidentiality can be violated anywhere, even an elevator. Employees don’t need Facebook to do it. That reminds me of the instance of the Coca-Cola employee who stole a vial of liquid and some papers from a filing cabinet and tried to sell them to PepsiCo (which, to its great credit, turned the employee in; she’s now doing time).

Facebook and other social channels are nothing more than one more channel through which company IP can be distributed—and it’s not much different than email, when you get right down to it. And let’s not forget that employees don’t need the company’s network in order to disclose IP. Many employees carry smartphones with access to social channels, or they can do it from home after work. Blocking access does nothing to stop this bad employee behavior. Training, education, and enforcement of policies will do far more.

And it’s also worth noting that Porsche, as clueless as its blocking effort is, opted to keep YouTube open because of the wealth of training material available through the video sharing network.

That leaves only one more argument from Mr. McPeake:

Slows a company???s internet connection

Barclays Communications argues, “Streaming videos, constantly updating news feeds, playing games and downloading pictures will utilise a large majority of a company???s broadband speed.”

Technically speaking, this is true. I know one hospital that reluctdantly locked down staff access to Pandora, the music streaming service, because so many people were using it and leaving it on all day that vital patient data was moving slowly through the network.

But consider the parallel situation 25 years ago when communication was largely print-based rather than digital. Did you ever here of one of those organizations proclaim that they wished they could send out an employee newsletter but, damn, they just didn’t have enough paper.

The notion is absurd. Companies bought enough paper to meet their communication needs.

Bandwidth is the paper of the digital age. If normal use of bandwidth is slowing the network to a crawl, get more bandwidth. It’s easy to make a business case for this bandwidth, particularly as organizations begin to recognie the substantial business value that exists when employees (adhering to policies) can access social media from work.

That’s business value to which Mr. McPeake is blind. Instead, he says, ???We would recommend that you completely block social networking sites with a Firewall such as Smoothwall.”

Do you get the feeling Smoothwall is a Barclay Communications client?

In any case, my advice to Mr. McPeake is to stick with IT and leave business decisions such as these to people who understand that the risks he cites are no risks at all when properly addressed. You have to wonder if Mr. McPeake ever read a quote from Allan Seckel, Deputy Minister to the BC Premier and head of Public Service, who has spoken widely about opening access for all BC employees. Social media, he said, is playing a more and more important role in the everyday work of public employees. Blocking access can impede the ability of employees to do their work, leading them to circumvent blocks and use their own equipment.

And, as an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted, “Email as we know it will soon give way to a more fully networked form of communication, which companies will learn to adopt. The only question is whether they will do so early or late.”

It’s time to chuck recommendations and arguments like Mr. McPeake’s into the trash, where they belong, and begin looking ahead to the networked realities of the world of work.

 

Comments

  • 1.Great post Shel...I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned laziness. It's a lot easier to just block access to social networks than it is to develop policies and training to ensure staff use the Internet responsibly at work.

    Julie | December 2010 | Ireland

  • 2.The most recent I've heard is that social networks give labor unions the opportunity to take over a company's Facebook page, flooding it with their information and ultimately rendering the page useless. Do you have any advice or case studies to prove otherwise? Thanks!

    Melissa | December 2010

  • 3.I look forward to your video series. Years ago there was a great Dilbert cartoon about the pointy haired boss giving Alice a hard time for shopping online from work to which she gave the boss a barrage of unpaid overtime, etc. that she had given the company.

    Alice Marshall | December 2010

Comment Form
What is the three-letter acronym for the podcast For Immediate Release?

« Back