Opinion: US$178B worth of baloney

The breathless headline on the press release reads: “US$178 Billion in Employee Productivity Lost in the U.S. Annually Due to Internet Misuse.” Yow! It turns out that Websense, which sells software for monitoring and blocking what employees do on the Internet, claims that personal use of the Internet on company time is “draining employee output” to the tune of US$5,000 per employee per year.

Is that true? Of course not. It’s baloney. Never mind the bizarre methodology of Websense’s study, which includes guesstimates by IT managers to come up with that US$178 billion number.

Just ask yourself this: If they weren’t on the Web, would those workers actually produce more “employee output”?

Nope. Not the vast majority of them, anyway. Instead of reading the news online, they’d be paging through a newspaper. Instead of checking personal e-mail or visiting travel or shopping sites, they’d be handling the same communications and tasks on the phone or during stretched-out lunch breaks. They’d just be doing it less efficiently. …if CEOs actually believed they could boost productivity by US$5,000 per employee, they’d slash Internet access tomorrow.Text Let’s face it: Employees who are focused on getting their work done don’t need some sort of electronic nanny to make sure they don’t wander off into the weeds. For them, the Internet isn’t a distraction — it’s a tool. And inveterate slackers who are focused on wasting time will do that regardless, whether it’s on the Internet or at the water cooler or walking around, coffee cup in hand.

Management knows that. CEOs understand that personal Web use is just another perk.

Heck, if CEOs actually believed they could boost productivity by US$5,000 per employee, they’d slash Internet access tomorrow. Consider Hewlett-Packard, which recently laid off 14,500 workers in hopes of chopping US$1 billion in costs next year. Do you think CEO Mark Hurd wouldn’t cut Internet access to HP employees if he thought that would instantly generate an extra US$725 million for HP’s bottom line and increase the company’s net income by 20 per cent?

Of course he would. And of course he won’t. Because, of course, it won’t.

So who is this “US$178 billion” baloney aimed at? Sad to say, it’s aimed at people in corporate IT. We’re suckers for this sort of bunk. Maybe it’s because we’ve generated so many bogus ROI calculations ourselves. Or maybe it’s because we’re always trying to improve capacity utilization, which is much easier than increasing user productivity.

But micromanaging machines can pay off. Micromanaging users never does.

Besides, we’ve already got a full plate of real challenges tied to users and the Internet. In comparison, slapping in some nannyware and obsessing over what Web sites to block and when to tattle on offenders is easy and fun.

On the other hand, developing a useful, accessible e-mail archive is hard. Figuring out how to track, log and preserve instant messages is even more difficult. But thanks to lawsuits and government regulations, we need to do both.

Spam isn’t getting easier to handle. Worms, viruses, Trojans and spyware are getting nastier. Intruders keep getting more professional. Unprotected home PCs that employees use to log into our networks remain a nightmare. Unsecured wireless access points, in the office or employees’ homes, are even worse.

Those are all real problems with real potential costs. If we handle them wrong, they really can drain employee output. And they can cost a lot more than that in fines, lost business and corporate humiliation.

So let’s forget the easy, simpleminded distractions. Save the nannyware for kids. Stay focused on helping to squeeze more real productivity out of the way employees use the Internet.

And let self-inflated vendors slice their own baloney — all US$178 billion of it.

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Hayes, Computerworld’s senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

Related links:

Net misuse costs businesses $178B annually

Workplace surveillance: productivity booster or morale buster?

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