Instead of cracking down on staff using Twitter and Facebook at work, firms will soon be exploiting social networking's business potential and drafting policies to control its use. Andrew Donoghue reports.
The days of companies being able to dismiss social networking as a consumer issue are numbered. That's the outlook from analyst companies including Gartner group, which predicts by 2014 social media will replace email in about 20 per cent of businesses.
Rather than trying to stamp out social media use, companies may actually look to build their own social networking platforms, or at least take greater advantage of existing sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
In a recent research note, Gartner vice president Matt Cain said the rigid distinction between email and social networks will erode. "Email will take on many social attributes, such as contact brokering, while social networks will develop richer email capabilities," he wrote.
Given this outlook, it appears those companies that have dodged making explicit decisions about social network use will soon have to face up to the issue. According to anecdotal evidence from IT consultancy Accenture and technology-specialist law firm Morrison & Foerster, about 50 per cent of companies have a social media policy in place. The rest have some catching up to do.
Most companies will already have policies in place to govern staff use of technology such as email and the web generally. They will also probably have codes of conduct for behaviour both within the company and with external partners and clients. But social media sites have the ability to cross the boundary between what is traditionally deemed business activity and an employee's personal life.
This blurring of lines creates challenges not only for developing a policy but for which department should be charged with managing it. Is social media use an issue for IT or HR exclusively, or does the new medium cross departmental lines?
silicon.com asked several experts for their perspectives on whether social media policies are really necessary and, if so, how to go about developing them.
To block or to trust?
The biggest question when it comes to explicit rules on issues such as social networking is one of trust. Especially in smaller companies, management may argue that employees don't need detailed rules on every questionable activity or to be actively prevented from accessing certain sites.
But Gary Curtis, chief technology strategist at consultants Accenture, argues that while a light touch may be appropriate in some circumstances, clear guidelines and even blocking software are important to protect the company and employees alike.
"Having been in that discussion with other CIOs around the world, I have come to the belief that as a senior manager you have to protect the interests of the whole," he says. "There is content on the web that is hugely inappropriate in any enterprise company and it is not possible in any large corporation to trust that everyone will have the same level of discretion."
According to the 2010 Information Security Breaches Survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers, nearly half of large organisations now restrict staff access to the internet, while less than a third did so in 2008. So although it seems more companies may be relying on social media for business use, such as recruitment and collaboration, they are doing so in a prescriptive way.
Sanctioned business use is being encouraged, while personal access is being controlled by policies and even blocking software. "Organisations are one and a half times as likely to monitor postings to social networking sites if social networking is considered very important to their business", PricewaterhouseCoopers reports.
Whose problem is it?
Accepting that your company needs a social media policy is an important step. The next one is deciding whose job it is to develop the guidelines. Traditionally, issues that deal with staff behaviour and conduct are dealt with by HR. But social media is also a tech issue so it makes sense for the IT department to be involved.
Experts agree that most companies are going to have to involve...