Napster: Fun for Adults and Idiots Alike

Have you tried Napster yet? Make sure you do because what you’ll be looking at could be the tip of the iceberg to your personal Titanic.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of its acquaintance, Napster is a relatively simple piece of software that plays MP3 music files. What’s amazing about it is that it links you to the music libraries of other Napster users so you can share music files and chat with those users.

And the statistics are pretty impressive. Hold on, let me fire up Napster…yep, it tells me that I have access to 452,111 songs (1,824GB!) in 3,297 libraries. Now that is what I call choice.

It is also what I call a legal time bomb: Through the offices of the Recording Industry Association of America, 18 major record companies have filed a lawsuit against Napster. The lawsuit, filed Dec. 6, 1999, accuses Napster of “contributory and vicarious” copyright infringement. This suit is essentially the “let’s ban guns because guns kill people” philosophy applied to music. Idiotic.

Equally idiotic is the petition some students have started, which Napster supports, to try to reverse the ban by some universities on the use of Napster and MP3. It seems some universities found that Napster was chewing up bandwidth at an incredible rate and, not unreasonably, started blocking Napster data transfers at their firewalls. The students whined that it was their “right” to use Napster and started the lame petition. Idiotic.

Be that as it may, when I first checked out Napster a couple of months ago I thought it was pretty cool, but with one thing and another, I pretty much forgot about it. Then last month the IS manager of a company I’m affiliated with put out a note asking the staff to desist from using Napster during working hours. It turned out that less than half the staff was using Napster while they worked, and the network connection was getting mighty stretched.

Because of team spirit in the office, the manager’s note had the desired effect. People stopped using Napster with wild abandon, and bandwidth availability was restored. Not so apparently in other organizations.

I’ve talked to companies about their Napster experiences, and it appears the larger the company, the more staffers make the assumption that a “please stop” request doesn’t apply to them. As a consequence, IS departments get Draconian and block Napster just like the universities did. What should have been an easily resolved problem becomes an issue.

But in these companies it seems along with the Napster problem there are a number of related issues flying in loose formation that cause similar management concerns: nonwork-related Web surfing, surfing-for-cash, compulsive stock market checking and maniacal eBay watching.

If we overlook the bandwidth erosion problem (and out of the lot, only Napster is really guilty of that), the reason organizations get their collective knickers in a twist isn’t about resources abuse, it is about the staff’s apparent lack of productivity.

So let’s get over the productivity problem. If you want to determine if your staff is being productive, don’t ban Napster and stock price checking and all the other fetishes. Convince your company to set work objectives and assess staff performance by whether they are meeting the goals.

Suddenly you’re treating the staff like adults and giving them every reason to behave responsibly because their performance is assessed by objective criteria. I would suggest that once they are being treated like adults, they are far more likely to comply.

Simple, eh? Now excuse me, I must go and tackle the issue of world peace.