The perils of Facebook and YouTube at work

Social networking has its downsides, says Bart Perkins

The use of social networking is rising dramatically, and its scope has expanded far beyond the personal realm. Politically-oriented videos and blogs are being posted to YouTube in an effort to influence the US primary elections and the Queen's 2007 Christmas message was posted on YouTube.

Corporate and government entities are increasingly using social networking to facilitate communication and collaboration among individuals and groups, both internally and externally. While there are clear benefits to increasing communication, social networks also present a number of challenges, including the following:

Bandwidth and storage consumption Many social network members post pictures, music, videos, high-definition movies and other large files. Downloading and storing these files can cripple your infrastructure and make capacity planning virtually impossible.

Potential legal liability Students at the University of Kent created a Facebook group named "For Those Who Hate the Little Fat Library Man," to harass a librarian they disliked. In some countries, if employees were to use corporate IT resources for similar purposes, the company could be held responsible in any ensuing litigation.

Exposure to malware Social networks are designed to be open, with few restrictions on content or links. In most cases, security was not a primary design criterion. Thus, these networks are potential vehicles for introducing viruses, worms and spyware.

Decreased employee productivity Social networking for personal purposes can affect corporate productivity. A Goldman Sachs trader in the UK was spending four work hours a day on Facebook. When he was told to stop, he posted the warning email and wrote, "It's a measure of how warped I've become that, not only am I surprisingly proud of this, but losing my job worries me far less than losing Facebook."

Even when networking is used for business purposes, companies may want to limit the number of networks employees use. Monitoring many networks can become incredibly time-consuming. Moreover, interfaces among current networks don't support robust information-sharing. Unfortunately, unless all interested parties use the same network, many benefits are lost. Consider designating specific networks for company-wide communications.

Disclosure of personal information Companies regularly search MySpace, Classmates.com, LinkedIn and other social networking sites to glean information about potential hires and competitors, but postings should always be taken with a grain of salt.

Risk of leaking corporate secrets Companies often sanction social networking for the purpose of exchanging professional information. But take great care to protect corporate secrets. Definitions of secret may vary or be misunderstood, and critical information may inadvertently be revealed. Provide clear guidelines across the company, as well as to your suppliers and outsourcers.

Limited executive use Many articles on social networking claim that it will facilitate sales. Executive use of social networking is not widespread, however. Many executives already have substantial personal networks and rely less on new technological platforms for interaction. (This will undoubtedly change in the future, but networks have limited selling power today).

While social networking does offer many benefits, there are corporate costs and pitfalls to be considered. Organisations need to establish policies to address issues such as personal usage, business relevance, site restrictions and information confidentiality. Take time to thoroughly investigate and address these issues to maximise the effectiveness of social networking.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

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